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Sunday, March 11, 2018

At Swim, Two Boys (2001) by Jaime O'Neill


Book Review
At Swim, Two Boys (2001)
by Jaime O'Neill

  Irish authors occupy a unique position in the pantheon of modern writers.  Ireland produced James Joyce, the most modern modernist of all and also the most romantic life-story of any 20th century novelist.  Ireland also produced Samuel Beckett, more or less lineally from James Joyce, and Beckett won a uniquely important Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote books in French, and is himself the single most important modernist writer in addition to James Joyce.  Flann O'Brian (Brian O'Nolan) exists at one remove from Beckett and Joyce, as a significant, but not the most significant, post-modernist writer.  At Swim, Two Boys references the work of Flann O'Brien, At-Swim-Two-Birds, published in 1939. 

 Still, the Irish impact of 20th century avant-garde literature is second to none.  What makes that more amazing is that the Irish impact on world literature outside that very small group is almost nill.  There are very few Irish family sagas.  There's no Irish equivalent for the post World War II generation of American or English authors, but ALL those authors were directly inspired by Joyce, Beckett and O'Brien.  Of course, you can't leave out Edna O'Brien and John Banville must be acknowledged as a continuing force in international prestige literary fiction, but At Swim, Two Boys by Jaime O'Neill is a worthy addition to the high Irish literary tradition, a 550 page gay coming of age novel set outside and inside Dublin before and during the Easter Rebellion of 1916.

  O'Neill focuses on three main characters, James, the younger son of an upwardly mobile Catholic shopkeeper, himself a veteran of the British Army;  Doyler Doyle, the son of a local drunkard, also a British army veteran.   James and Doyler find an unlikely friendship with a gay undertone, but nothing explicit.  Doyler promises to teach James to swim to the rock, a local landmark difficult to reach because of the strength of the Irish coastal tides.

 Meanwhile, Anthony MacMurrough, returns to the neighborhood where his spinster aunt is the sole remaining member of the local land owning family.  MacMurrough has just spent two years in an English prison for "gross indecency" with a chauffeur.  Anthony's ambitious aunt doesn't care, and moves forward with her plans to integrate Anthony back into Irish society, as she plots to end English rule in her native land.

   O'Neill relies almost but not entirely on stream of consciousness techniques, switching between Anthony and James, or James and Doyler, often in the same chapter.  In that sense, At Swim, Two Boys does resemble Joyce, but not the difficult machinations of O'Brien in At-Swim-Two-Birds.  But the title of this book does accurately reflect that two boys swimming plays a central role in the plot.  The success of At Swim, Two Boys is not just in it being an Irish gay coming of age story, but also for the Easter Rebellion back ground.   Even with the stream of consciousness technique, there is enough information to allow the reader to follow the historical events of this interesting time.

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