Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim Two Boys

by Jess

I didn’t realize this book was a work of queer lit when I picked it up — the blurb on the back mentions only “the depth of the boys’ burgeoning friendship”; perhaps I’m a bit naive — but it’s become a good lesson in preconceptions about genre.  I think what helps At Swim Two Boys rise above the standard notion I’ve developed regarding queer lit — fairly or unfairly — is that it’s not a one-genre book.  It’s a historical novel and a philosophical novel as much as it is anything else, and it’s equipped with an incredible beauty that I found irresistible.

I’ll let Niall Stanage sum up the plot for you, because he does it so deftly:

The two boys of the title are Jim Mack and ‘Doyler’ Doyle, united by their nascent awareness of their homosexuality and by a shared ambition – to swim from Kingstown to the distant Muglins. The narrative follows their relationship as it develops from awkward friendship to intimate love.

Politics provides the backdrop. The action takes place in 1915 and 1916, with the news dominated first by reports of losses in the Great War, later by rumours of preparations for the Easter Rising, and, ultimately, by the Rising itself.

The title is a nod to Flann O’Brien’s masterpiece At Swim-Two-Birds, Swim-Two-Birds being a place on the River Shannon.  The title of O’Neill’s novel is found in this passage:

Grey morning dulled the bay. Banks of clouds, Howth just one more bank, rolled to sea, where other Howths grumbled to greet them. Swollen spumeless tide. Heads that bobbed like floating gulls and gulls that floating bobbed like heads. Two heads. At swim, two boys.

Each character’s POV section has its own distinct voice.  O’Neill hates the narrative voice, so it was important to him that we see the world entirely as experienced by his characters.  Many of the characters have lovely, poetic ways of speaking.  Mr. Mack has by far the most entertaining, often confusing or making up words.  Near the beginning of the novel we read:

Brambly path through the shadowy wood.  Birds singing on all sides.  Mess of nettles, cow-parsley, could take a scythe to them.  Light green frilly leaves would put you in mind of, ahem, petticoats.  A blackbird scuttled off the path like a schoolboy caught at a caper.  Then he was out in the light, and the lawns of Ballygihen House stretched leisurely to the sea.  The sea oh the sea, long may it be.

Can I just stop for a minute and tell you that I love the Irish?  I’ve never been there, but I love their damp, deep greens and their music and their lilting accent and their toughness and their beer.  In fact, I was delayed in writing this post because I got sidetracked by an Irish song O’Neill mentions in an interview with Open Loop Press, and I spent like an hour listening to Sinead O’Connor sing in Gaelic on Youtube.

But anyway, some critics didn’t think so highly of O’Neill’s use of language and found it at best too challenging and at worst offensive.  Trevor Butterworth says in The Washington Post‘s Book World:

What else can you say of a novel in which … the lower-class characters are doomed to speak “Dublinese” — a relentless sing-song of phrase-making, word play and mispronunciation? “Carry me out and bury me decent, so you have and all,” to quote one of O’Neill’s Central Casting Dubliners. Sad to say, Flann O’Brien beat the shtick out of this kind of turgid “Oirish” writing, and O’Neill, without any discernible register of irony or comic intent, puts it straight back in again.

Honestly, I didn’t know there was a controversy going about it.  I suppose it’s the equivalent in American literature of making every black southerner sound like Sambo.  I suppose I see the point, but once I was able to fall into the cadence of the language — and yes, it did take me a while — I was completely under its spell.  I found it playful and charming and quite beautiful.

Like this jolly character description:

There goes Mr. Mack, cock of the town. One foot up, the other foot down. The hell of a gent. With a tip of his hat here and a top of the morn there, tip-top, everything’s dandy. He’d bare his head to a lamppost.

And then there are heavier moments, like MacMurrough contemplating the washerwoman:

Her song was of a swam on a lake but her singing held the sadness of Ireland, the lost lonely wastes of sadness.  He saw the black water and the declining sun and the swam dipping down, its white wings flashing, and slowing and slowing till silver ripples carried it home.  It was a scene which seemed the heart of this land.  The lowing sun and the one star waking, white wings on a black water, and the smell of rain, and the long lone fading where a voice comes in the falling night.

— Ireland, said Scrotes.

— Yes, this is Ireland.

The washerwoman turns out to be Doyler’s mother, who is just an incidental character in the novel, we see her only briefly twice or three times, but I loved her.  The tender scene between her and Doyler is one of my favorites.

Now she said, “My black-headed black-eyed boy.  I remember every day of you.  How would I forget?”  She wiped her hands on her smock, greying the white with prints of wet.  “Give Missy here to me now and let you get on with your day.”  She crooked her elbow and the bundle fell home.  In God’s pocket, they called that, snug inside of the shawl. …



“Come back to me now.”  He came back and she said, “Don’t be bitter, son.  There’s bitterness enough in the world.”  She touched his chin as she spoke.  The hard of her face was in the soda of her fingers.  “I’ll be in to fix your a bite to eat.”

“Ah no, Ma.  Sure you have the seven cares of the mountain with them sheets.  You’ll share a cup of tea?”

“Don’t wake himself.”

“Why would I do that?”  He made tea and brought out two jars of it.  He hunched beside her with a heel of a loaf that he dipped inside. …

On his way to the lane he stopped a moment to watch his mother in the yard.  The half-doors were open in the cottages and the caged birds sang from the windows.  His mother cronawned to Missy — shoheen la is shoheen la-lo — while the child dozed and the stains washed away.

There are also several languages in the book, loads of Latin and French and Gaelic; it’s a linguistical smorgasbord.  I was fascinated, too, by the idea that the language simply did not exist to describe homosexuality.  It was referred to as pecatum inter Christianos non nominandum est: the sin amongst Christians which couldn’t be spoken.  It literally could not be mentioned until, as O’Neill tells it, Oscar Wilde put language to it right around the same time period as the novel’s setting.  There’s a sort-of funny scene where Jim tries to confess to the priest his first homosexual encounter, and the priest cannot understand what he’s saying.  The priest keeps saying, “Was she married? Was she a girl? Was she a woman?” Jim says, “No, it was a man, it wasn’t a woman,” and the priest says, “It was a girl, so?”  There are so many layers here to language — what is said and how it’s said, what isn’t said, what shouldn’t be said, what there are no words to say.

Another constant criticism is that O’Neill has borrowed too heavily from Joyce — Mack is, apparently, a dead-ringer for Leopold Bloom — and Wilde and a few others.  This seems rather a weak argument to me.  All literature is architectural: it builds and builds and builds on itself, and every now and then a movement comes along that tries its damnedest to do the opposite of what came before it, which is still a way of building upon it.  It’s the same ridiculous argument that no one can write about peaches after “The Waste-Land.”  O’Neill explains it this way in the same Open Loop Press interview:

It was important to me that the two boys come from an Irish tradition. One of them speaks Irish and the other tries to learn Irish, and they go to see Irish sports — hurling — they play Irish music on the Irish flute, and they’re Catholic, so they definitely come from an Irish tradition.

The book in some way had to follow that; it comes from a tradition of Irish literature. I hope that people would find that it has its own voice by chapter three, but it was important to me that it come from a place in Irish literature, that it had antecedence just as the boys did have. I didn’t want it to seem that this suddenly appeared in Ireland, you know, two boys falling in love, but that it had always been there and we hadn’t looked at it before but if we go back through the tradition we’ll find it. I suppose that was what I was aiming at.

Though I loved the language and the richly drawn characters and the constant pulse of the rising political upheaval, I have to admit the ending fell apart for me.  The tension was riveting, and I tore through the pages as it rose and rose and rose — and then Doyler and Jim realized their true feelings, as it were, and got together, and there were still a hundred pages left, filled with what would have been great scenes of the Easter uprising that, unfortunately, sort of fell flat as though all of the air had been let out of the plot.

I was also displeased with the development of Jim’s character, whose intellectual awakening I found totally unbelievable and (to quote another famous literary youth) phony.  Most of the characters follow really rewarding arcs — MacMurrough chief among them.  I’ll let Stanage take it again:

MacMurrough initially appears to be a somewhat hackneyed creation – an ageing, sexually predatory toff – but as the narrative progresses his self-loathing and magnanimity both come to the fore with affecting results. Likewise, Mr Mack’s conceits about his British army past and his hopes for social advancement initially make him seem like a buffoon. The reader soon sees a quite different man, however – one who struggles daily to cope with the early death of his wife and, later, with the loss of his soldier son, Gordie.

(I got the Stanage quotes, by the way, from a particularly rich find: a compilation of Irish reviews from when the book was published in 2001.)

I hear a sequel is forthcoming and a movie may or may not be in the works, something to do with the Irish Film Board possibly being abolished.  This is Wikipedia information, so who knows.

Despite its flaws, I thought it was a solid, lovely book, enchanting and challenging and thought-provoking.  Oh, and you have to listen to Sinead O’Connor and The Chieftains play The Foggy Dew while you read it.