At swim, two boys : a novel

by Jamie O'Neill

Paper Book, 2002




New York : Scribner, 2002.


"Set in Dublin, At Swim, Two Boys follows the year to Easter 1916, the time of Ireland's brave but fractured uprising against British rule. O'Neill tells the story of the love of two boys: Jim, a naive and reticent scholar and the younger son of the foolish aspiring shopkeeper Mr. Mack, and Doyler, the dark, rough-diamond son of Mr. Mack's old army pal. Doyler might once have made a scholar like Jim, but his folks sent him to work, and now, schoolboy no more, he hauls the parish midden cart, with socialism and revolution and willful blasphemy stuffed under his cap." "And yet the future is rose, Jim's father is sure. His elder son is away fighting the Hun for God and the British Army, and he has such plans for Jim and their corner shop empire. But Mr. Mack cannot see that the landscape is changing, nor does he realize the depth of Jim's burgeoning friendship with Doyler. Out at the Forty Foot, the great jut of rock where gentlemen bathe in the scandalous nude, the two boys meet day after day. There they make a pact: Doyler will teach Jim to swim, and in a year, Easter 1916, they will swim the bay to the distant beacon of Muglins Rock and claim that island for themselves."--BOOK JACKET.Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member lycomayflower
We don't have an equivalent word to "virtuoso" for someone with superior skill with language, do we? Because that's what At Swim, Two Boys is: a virtuoso literary performance. O'Neill seems to understand and experience language on a higher level than the rest of us. He sees how sentences and words fit together, and he tweaks them into combinations startlingly both unexpected and inevitable. O'Neill's prose is all about sound, and his book is all about story. And that's what's so remarkable about At Swim, Two Boys--it is at once a pitch perfect exercise in masterful language art and an engaging story populated with the sorts of characters who I am certain I will find myself thinking about at odd moments for years. Language never trumps story and story never trumps language; they are finely intertwined, with each word, each sentence, each character, each event displaying the same care in their crafting. The comparison to Joyce feels inescapable, but O'Neill's prose resists being described as language play and there's nothing clever about the book. I felt when I was reading it that O'Neill had a story to tell and he told it in the way he knew how. And that way is beautiful. I never got the feeling, as I so often do with Joyce, that he was sniggering quietly to himself because he expected me not to get the joke--or even that there was a joke to begin with.… (more)
LibraryThing member Cormach
I don't know what to say about this unforgettable book: beautiful; magnificent; heart wrenching; breathtaking. Everything about it is wonderful and as soon as I finished it I wanted to start reading it all over again. What I can say is that in all the many many years I've been reading, this is by far the best book I have read and if I could never have another book then I'd be happy so long as I had this to read.… (more)
LibraryThing member thorold
This is a book that exploits all the clichés of bad Irish fiction - an historical novel set in Dublin in 1915-16 with passages of pastiche Joyce and Flann O'Brien, generous doses of nationalism, abusive priests, grinding poverty, alcohol, supercilious English officers, the Easter rising, and plenty of wet weather. It's also a gay coming-of-age novel with lashings of Platonic dialogues, Reading Gaolery, and Edward-Carpentry for beginners. And it's endlessly long. It should be absolutely awful, but O'Neill somehow or other manages to put these hackneyed bits together in original ways, and tells the whole thing with so much style and confidence that it is all rather fun in the end.… (more)
LibraryThing member presto
The year is 1916, the place Dublin, and two young boys, one the son of a shopkeeper, the other a rough street boy. Watching over the two boys is a young self-centred man of the privileged class.

The two boys, Jim and Doyler were school friends before Doyler left school and moved away, and Doyler has a very soft spot for Jim. When Doyler returns and meets up again with Jim, still at school, he offers to teach him to swim out at the Forty Foot, a large rock where gentlemen bathe without the benefit of any costume. They make a pact that within the year they will swim to the distant Muglins Rock. At the same time Ireland is tied up in its troubles, with war raging in Europe and the rumblings of the battle for the countries independence, the two boys cannot remain unaffected.

But very much involved in the destiny of the two boys is Anthony MacMurrough, the nephew of a well to do Irish family, fresh out of a stint spent at his majesties pleasure in England for his illicit activities with another young man. Seemingly self centred and led by his inclinations, he strikes up a 'relationship' with Doyler, paying him for his services, and even trying to improve the young man, but Doyler is not to be one over, and even warns MacMurrough not to lay a finger on Jim. Yet in Doyler's absence MacMurrough watches over Jim, even makes sacrifices for him, and teaches his to swim.

Providing light relief to the proceedings is Jim's bumbling father, Mr Mack, the aspiring shopkeeper who somehow unfailing manages never to get it quite right.

At Swim Two Boys is a hauntingly beautiful story. It is told in turn from the perspective of the various main protagonists, and the style of writing changes accordingly. The relationship between the two boys is most touching; street wise Doyler longing for intimacy with the naive and innocent Jim, but unsure of Jim's inclinations. By contrast Doyler gives MacMurrough whatever he wants, and receives recompense in return. Yet through it all it is perhaps MacMurrough who grows the most, and his loyal attachment to Jim may be the making of him. A deep and most pleasurable read, highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member Alirambles
I enjoyed parts of this book very much. O'Neill does a brilliant job of unfolding the relationships between people and letting them grow and contract in a very natural way. I read several of the scenes (no, not just the racy ones) two or three times because they were so beautifully laid out.

It was a little hard to understand at times, not because of the dialect ('tis very Irish, so it is--if you like the lilt of Frank McCourt's 'Tis you'll love this) but because of the author's style. Incomplete sentences. Thoughts unfinished. Many words on the page, one after the other, the way words normally occur, and yet—. Sometimes describing thoughts and at other times, the scene. Confusing.

The book takes place in 1915-1916, just before the Easter Rising that resulted in the independence of the Republic of Ireland, and it puts the reader into the middle of that conflict. This is good if you like history, which I do. If you didn't I think it might pull you away from the story, trying to figure out which side is which and how it all connects. I never did quite figure out which side a couple of the characters were on--or maybe that was the point. And, well, I didn't love the ending, but that's personal preference--it was very well done, it just wasn't the exact ending I would have chosen.
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LibraryThing member narwhaltortellini
I rate books on my personal enjoyment of them, as you can go anywhere to find where to find whether this is supposed to be a Good Worthwhile Book from someone much better informed on such things, and it seems ludicrous to give a perfect score to something I had such trouble getting in to as far as the flow of the writing goes, but... I can bare no less ^_^;

Everyone says this book is hard to get in to for the first 50 pages because of the street slang and that darn crazy Irish-Gaelic syntax, and if you're smart (unlike me), and if you don't know much about the Easter Uprising of 1916, you might want to google it just a bit before starting. This might be a good idea, as while you can figure out what's going about in their history well enough by keeping your eyes open, most people would probably be preoccupied enough figuring out how to get in to the rhythm of the prose. ^^

The darndable thing was, I UNDERSTOOD well enough by the first 50, but I was still getting the feeling I was missing a lot of the subtleties that are often what make writing awesome, and everything was losing a lot of the impact it should have had, just because I still felt an awful lot like I was reading a foreign language I had studied plenty but hadn't been around real natives speakers enough yet. But what I was understanding fully was still enjoyable, so I kept reading, feeling mildly to sometimes rather decidedly disgruntled.

...And then somewhere near the end of the book I looked back and said, "...Hey, I could have sworn a long time ago this was a little hard to understand or something. ...Huh. Oh well." *keeps reading even though she ought to have slept and be up in 3 hours*

As for the rest of it, I can't really praise its awesomeness any better than everyone else already has to death, so meh. Especially without making it sound like sentimental mush. Once I stopped having trouble with it, the writing was gorgeous. For another interesting note about my stupidity, this book is obviously going to end in tragedy. It's obvious from the plot description, it's obvious from comments you read about it, it's obvious from the review quotes riddled all over the book. I was fully aware of this when I started, and was rather annoyed as whenever I've got a book I know will end sadly, I can't help but every time something good happens in it go, 'Well, that's nice and all, but we all know none of this will matter in the end. *eye roll*' ...And then the fact just kind of sunk in to the back of my mind, never to surface again till (quite honestly) A FEW PARAGRAPHS before tragedy struck ^_^; Not even the awful situation rising, not even the portentous dialogue would break through my wonderful shelled brains.

Which is also to say, this book isn't surrounded by an unbearably, suffocating air of DOOOOOOM. It's rather happy, friendly, funny, and almost even kind of up-beat at times. ...Except for all The Sad in the end. So very sad. :( ...Even so, there's really no calling for forgetting this book ends with tragedy. I'm just really dumb like that. ...Not that I'm not happy I was able to enjoy the nicer parts of the book without being preoccupied with that ^_^ Go me!

And, on a random note, though I was sure I would hate McMurrough reading the summaries, and was annoyed when I found out he was supposed to be one of the three main characters, I just kind of felt sorry for him when I first read his parts. Anyway, I have now decided he will be my husband. Besides the whole fictional character from Ireland who lived during WWI, once imprisoned in England for being an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort, I think he will be just perfect. Lovely, lovely man
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LibraryThing member McCaine
What immediately struck me in this novel is that it manages to be a novel about gays without being a gay novel, with all the dubious implications that term has. Though describing something as romantic and dramatic as a gay relationship between two Irish boys over the backdrop of the Easter Rising, it never becomes trite, cheap or overwrought. Never do any of the gay characters appear as overly sexualized, implausibly innocent or a combination of both, as is so often the case with books about young gay boys. Never is the real attitude of the times towards homosexuality forgotten, but at the same time the author, Jamie O'Neill, never paints any of the straight people in a less realistic or more negative light than any of the "gay" people in the book either. These are great accomplishments compared to the veritable flood of mediocre works about homosexual relations out at this moment.

The book's style is excellent. The historically probable world-views of the very different people that make up the world of "At Swim, Two Boys" are rendered faithfully and realistically without becoming overly psychologizing, as many modern novels are. The interaction between the characters and the general theme of the plot appears as an odd mixture of Thomas Mann and Charles Dickens, but in modern style (though using the language of the times, and paying great attention to it too!) and without the grandeur of either. O'Neill masterfully creates suspense with small changes in plot, making each individual character's actions appear as gripping and unpredictable, without the reader noticing that purely factually, not much happens.

The only downside to the book is its length (it could have been cut just a bit, especially at the start) and the first parts that are seen from the view of Anthony MacMurrough, a dandy returned from Britain to Ireland with a shady past. His character seems somewhat of a historical nod to Oscar Wilde, but his arrogant and rather overdone musings seem at first to be a break in style with the other characters and are rather uninteresting to read. Fortunately, he undergoes a series of events that change his view on things and in the end he is redeemed, making him all the more rewarding as a character.

To summarize, the book is a solid and exciting historical novel which will be especially appealing to (male) gay readers, but certainly guaranteed to interest anyone else as well. To leave the plot exciting (it is too easily betrayed), I haven't given any extra information on the background, and other reviewers before me have done this amply anyway.
The title is incidentally a reference to the famous novel "At Swim, Two Birds" by Flann O'Brien.
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LibraryThing member severina
I bought this on the recommendation of some of my flist waaaay back in February or March, I believe. It is the story of two young men, Jim and Doyler, friends and eventual lovers, in Dublin 1916. It sat on my bookshelf, patiently waiting for me to get to it. I wanted to be able to give it the attention it deserved, and had been warned that the dialect would be difficult... thus figured I wouldn't be able to bring it to work and truly concentrate on it the way I needed to.

It isn't so much a dialect thing, I discovered, as a cadence to the words... a lovely dance that the writer twirls and spins across the floor. I found the book slow-going at first. Partially because it takes a few chapters to find the rhythm of the words, and partially because the tale focuses at first on Jim's father and Jim's gone-to-war brother. It doesn't take long for Doyler to enter the picture, though, and I found myself cursing when a "Mr. Mack" section of the book took the focus off Jim/Doyler. But I then found myself drawn so much into the story that all of the characters meant something. They were all real, all three-dimensional, all with foibles and joys and vanities and pleasures and I could identify with each of them. And -- this is kind of hard to explain -- with each chapter you could see the growth of the characters as they learned from each other. Everything weaved together seamlessly.

Mr. Mack, in particular, really spoke to me. In a world populated by those who pay lip-service to love, devotion, piety and honesty, it is Mr. Mack, outwardly so concerned with appearances and rising above his station, who proves to be a Good Man. It is his nature.

The ending gutted me.

(Reviewed October 2004)
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LibraryThing member Jenson_AKA_DL
If ever there were a book completely unlike anything that I would usually enjoy reading, this would probably be it. That being said I am remarkably surprised that I can't say that I hated the story. Primarily this is a book about an Irish uprising against the British rule at the beginning of WWI (from what I gather, I may have gathered incorrectly). The story is told from the points of view of a number of different people from an Irish shopkeeper who supports the English regency, to an older woman who supports the revolution. In particular the story centers on two 16 year old boys from different classes and backgrounds who form an extraordinary friendship based on love and trust. One of the boys, Jim Mack, is the son of a shopkeeper, a scholarship student and prone to flights of fancy, easily carried outside himself by the words and actions of others. The second boy, Doyler is a citizens soldier in the making, dedicated to the freedom of the working class and self-appointed socialist. Together they make a pact to swim to the Muglins on Easter, a risky proposition which becomes the crux of their dedication to each other.

I picked up this story based on the description which basically indicated this is a coming of age type story of two boys (as I guess I have also, because this is the part of the book which touched me the most). However, there is much more to it. It is a story of politics and beliefs during wartime and of people trying to find a place for themselves and someone to care for them.

I found the book very hard to read, part of this is because I don't enjoy conflict and am not fond of war stories. However, it was the Irish dialect and slang itself that made the reading of the book so confusing to me, especially in the beginning. Not only were the characters words confusing, but the narrative and setting descriptions themselves were all written in this manner. It was hard work to get through, but certainly worth the effort. I came to care about the story and very much for the characters of Jim, Doyle, and especially MacMurrough. Despite his rocky and necessarily confused introduction into the tale, it was he I empathized with the most for his relationship with Jim and Doyle and for his own personal demons and tragedies.

Knowing for truth now what this book is I can honestly say had I understood what the book was about I would never have picked it up, but even still I cannot say at all that I regret having read it. It is one that will stay on my mind for some time to come, if not only for the sweet quote, "pal o' me heart" which will always remind me.
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LibraryThing member laytonwoman3rd
What a beautiful book altogether. Every character is perfectly drawn, set and completed in this excellent novel. Call it gay lit, or Irish literature, a bildungsroman, or a historical novel, it is Literature with the big "L". It explores the nature of love, of patriotism, of honor, of family, of history, within the context of the Irish independence movement, just before the doomed Rising of Easter Monday, 1916. It ends as you know all along it will, and though it's hard to accept, it's quite right, too. The language is so lovely, I wanted to roll around in it the way a cat rolls in nip.… (more)
LibraryThing member chrisadami
A phenomenal book, easily that year's best. Fans of Joyce's Ulysses will have a blast.
LibraryThing member ElTomaso
The title gives a hint as to what is a somtimes odd version of English, at least for those of use on this side of the "pond" (in the U.S.). Consequently, with all the struggle to make sense out of the language, I was not particularly excited about what is afterall, another gay coming of age story. Can we have something different for a change? We are not all adolescent gay boys!… (more)
LibraryThing member jwhenderson
This very Irish novel was a sometimes frustrating, but ultimately wonderful book to read. The combination of a luscious prose style and interesting love story combined to provide for an enjoyable experience for this reader. The main characters came alive over the course of this long novel. However, both the difficulties I had with the dialect and confusion over the events (not being that expert in Irish history of the World War I era) detracted from my overall enjoyment. At the heart of the novel is the love of two boys, Jim and Doyler, for each other and, for me, the particularly moving relationship of Jim with his father, Mr. Mack. I was at another disadvantage in my ignorance of Catholicism which also impeded my appreciation of the story.
Nonetheless the book captured me as I'm sure it has other readers, for the passion of the characters and their language was truly inspiring.
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LibraryThing member DaveFragments
excellent writing, a magnificent collection of words and a great story.
LibraryThing member redbike
Highly recommended. This is my favorite queer novel of the Oughts so far. What I love even more is its mash-up with revolutionary fiction and Dickensian characters. The characters: like the father and Aunt of the main character are hilarious and so believable. This book broke my heart and even though its pretty long I didn't want it to end.… (more)
LibraryThing member DavidGreene
Extraordinary. Inspired me to write. I read that this book took about 10 years to write. So I'm hoping a new one from Mr. O'Neill will be coming soon.
LibraryThing member marmaladegirl
This book left me breathless. The setting is vivid and the descriptions are almost tactile. I love the way O'Neill so subtly brings Jim's and Doyler's feelings to light - it's quiet, but no less powerful for that. The language is captivating and has a certain pace and lilt that made it effortless reading. Definitely a favorite.
LibraryThing member alexvalk
One of the most beautiful love stories I've ever read, set against the Irish rebellion in the beginning of the last century.
LibraryThing member llandaff
Very well written. Especially enjoyable for those interested in Irish history. The first chapter didn't lure me in, but after chapter two I was hooked.
LibraryThing member TonySandel
Anthony MacMurrough grooms and sexually abuses a number of boys.
LibraryThing member ainjel
Here is a book I wanted to like more than I did.

Don't get me wrong, At Swim, Two Boys has some stunning lines that I could already imagine on a million tumblr edits. There was a lot of potential here and it hits a market that I think is highly lacking in literature (I'm talking historical queer romance). But...


Okay so first off, this is a hard book to read. The writing is, in many ways, very sophisticated and so it takes a while to get into the rhythm of it. It's stream-of-consciousness and flips between characters without hesitation. Plus, it's Irish and full of slang and such that I am entirely unfamiliar with. So the first 50 pages or so are rough, but then things start to get easier.

Second, I didn't care for, uhhhhhhhhh, about 50% of the story. I liked Doyler and Jim. I cared about Doyler and Jim. Everything else was background, and I found myself zoning out for page after page when it wasn't focused on them.

Third, okay, the romance was pretty good. It wasn't an idealized romance: it was rough and messy and felt very real and very era-appropriate. It was sweet and sad and fulfilling and I quite enjoyed that.

And fourth.... the ending was horrible.

H o r r i b l e.

It's the kind of ending you know is going to happen because you're not an idiot, but you're hoping the author has the guts to do something different, but he doesn't. He gives you exactly what you think he'll give you, and it's entirely unsatisfying. Yawn.

500 pages that should have been 200.

And that's that.
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LibraryThing member the_awesome_opossum
Within, despite, and because of the political unrest in Ireland which culminates in the Easter Uprising of 1916, Jim Mack and Doyler Doyle are drawn together as teenagers to revive a childhood friendship. Doyle's swimming lessons for Jim and the strong attachments that arise between them are two of the few constants in their lives otherwise marked by upheaval, uncertainty, violence, and marginalization. At Swim, Two Boys is a gay coming of age story, but it also exceeds either the genre of romance or bildungsroman by the political anxiety unfolding behind the boys that makes clear this is not only their story but that of their country and history.

It is a story about going for broke for the sake of passion, the relative satisfactions of safety versus recklessness, and how to decide where to moor one's convictions and stabilities in a world without much solid ground. As we see the life of every character disrupted by the political build-up to the uprising, questions of loyalty and love themselves take on a dual meaning between the private and public spheres, between constructions of family and of patriotism.
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LibraryThing member autumnesf
Although the Irish aspect of this book was interesting, I don't enjoy the homosexual genre. If you do, its worth the read.
LibraryThing member charlie68
I'm divided on this one it is generally very good. The characters are lovingly expressed and the action vividly portrayed. The homosexual sex might be a turn off for a lot of people, in a movie would give it an R rating, I certainly found it gross. But the general story is quite good.
LibraryThing member JESGalway
Praised as “a work of wild, vaulting ambition and achievement” by Entertainment Weekly, Jamie O’Neill’s first novel invites comparison to such literary greats as James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Charles Dickens.

Set during the year preceding the Easter Uprising of 1916—Ireland’s brave but fractured revolt against British rule—At Swim, Two Boys is a tender, tragic love story and a brilliant depiction of people caught in the tide of history. Powerful and artful, and ten years in the writing, it is a masterwork from Jamie O’Neill.

Jim Mack is a naïve young scholar and the son of a foolish, aspiring shopkeeper. Doyler Doyle is the rough-diamond son—revolutionary and blasphemous—of Mr. Mack’s old army pal. Out at the Forty Foot, that great jut of rock where gentlemen bathe in the nude, the two boys make a pact: Doyler will teach Jim to swim, and in a year, on Easter of 1916, they will swim to the distant beacon of Muglins Rock and claim that island for themselves. All the while Mr. Mack, who has grand plans for a corner shop empire, remains unaware of the depth of the boys’ burgeoning friendship and of the changing landscape of a nation.
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