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At Swim, Two Boys Hardcover – March 5, 2002

4.5 out of 5 stars 157 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

You may have read the hype. Irishman Jamie O'Neill was working as a London hospital porter when his 10-year labor of love, the 200,000-word manuscript of At Swim, Two Boys, written on a laptop during quiet patches at work, was suddenly snapped up for a hefty six-figure advance. For once, the book fully deserves the hype.

In the spring of 1915, Jim Mack and "the Doyler," two Dublin boys, make a pact to swim to an island in Dublin Bay the following Easter. By the time they do, Dublin has been consumed by the Easter Uprising, and the boys' friendship has blossomed into love--a love that will in time be overtaken by tragedy. O'Neill's prose, playing merrily with vocabulary, syntax, and idiom, has unsurprisingly drawn comparisons to James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, but in his creation of comic characters (such as Jim's pathetic but irrepressible father) and in the sheer scale of his work, Charles Dickens springs to mind first. But Dickens never wrote a love story between young men as achingly beautiful as this.

In the character of Anthony MacMurrough, who is haunted by voices as he pursues his illegal and dangerous desire for Dublin boys, O'Neill has created a complex and fascinating center to his novel, rescuing the love story from mawkishness, and allowing a serious meditation on history, politics, and desire. For as Ireland seeks its own future free of British government, so Jim, Doyle, and MacMurrough look back to Sparta to find a way to live. As Dr Scrotes, one of MacMurrough's voices, commands:

Help these boys build a nation of their own. Ransack the histories for clues to their past. Plunder the literature for words they can speak.
In this massive, enthralling, and brilliant debut, Jamie O'Neill has indeed done just that: provided a nation for what Walt Whitman calls, in O'Neill's epigraph, "the love of comrades." --Alan Stewart, Amazon.co.uk

From Library Journal

Published last year in Great Britain, this novel has been compared to works by James Joyce (or Flann O'Brien, whose At Swim-Two-Birds the title plays on), but it has more in common with the film Chariots of Fire in its painterly depiction of male athleticism and relationships. The sheltered son of a pro-British shopkeeper, 16-year-old Jim develops a doting and eventually homosexual relationship with Doyler, a bright boy from an impoverished family, as the two train for an ambitious swim across Dublin Bay on Easter 1916, a date that happens to coincide with a planned Republican uprising. Both become entangled with McMurrough, scion of wealthy Irish gentry, who is back in Dublin following imprisonment in England for indecent behavior. Jim is too na ve and Doyler too politically sophisticated for their years, while McMurrough is typecast as an Oscar Wilde figure. Still, these are rich characterizations, and together with the playfully rendered Irish dialect they outweigh the book's imperfections. O'Neill also offers gorgeous descriptions of the Dublin environs and remarkable details of the period. Recommended for most fiction collections. Reba Leiding, James Madison Univ. Lib., Harrisonburg, VA
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; 1st Scribner ed edition (March 5, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743222946
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743222945
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.6 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (157 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #935,812 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Let's start off by saying this book may not be for everyone--but it should be. I'm not referring here to the fact that its three lead characters are gay, since "At Swim, Two Boys" is so much more than "a gay novel" and since, while often sensuous, it is hardly erotic. Instead, the efforts of many readers may be thwarted by O'Neill's challenging and lyrical prose, the Irish brogue and street slang, the invented Latin derivations and oh-so-clever puns. After 50 to 75 pages, though, the reader's patience is well rewarded. Once you accustom yourself to the pattern of the prose, the context provides clues to even the most unfamiliar words, and I found the book difficult to set aside. (A little advice: after you pick up the cadence of the dialect, you may well want to go back and read those beginning pages again. The second time around revealed some wonderful passages and pivotal characterizations that flew right over my head initially.)
Set during the year prior to the Easter Rising in 1916, the novel focuses on two 16-year-old boys, Doyler and Jim, and their families. The main characters are finely portrayed, and (as others have noted) they successfully arouse the reader's sympathies. But O'Neill adds a memorable supporting cast: Jim's aunt, a doddering, whiskered crone who always seems far more aware of what's going on than one is led to believe; Eva MacMurrough, a rich patron of Irish rebel causes who is flustered by her nephew's Wildean tendencies; and, for comic relief, Jim's father, a pretentious wannabe who always manages to be in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time.
The most nuanced portrayal is that of the Anthony MacMurrough. Once may quibble over whether he is a pedophile: textual clues place his age in his early- to mid-20s; Doyler, his "rent boy," is 16.
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Format: Hardcover
This is easily the best novel I've read this year. Anyone who can't relate to the universal, and universally appealing, themes that O'Neill treats in this ambitious work simply isn't reading with either an open mind or an open heart.
This is not a "genre" novel; it's outstanding writing by any standards one could think to apply. The story is tightly crafted, rich and complex, and the characters are unforgettable. And yes, as some reviewers discovered to their chagrin, a number of them display the moral ambiguity so characteristic of our species.
I gave this novel to my wife when I finished it, and recommended it to my (also straight) 22-year-old son. If you love fine writing and aren't obsessed with hating those whose sexual orientation puts them in the minority, you'll be deeply moved by this novel.
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Format: Hardcover
A good book. Maybe even a great book. Joycean in quality, even in language, a little, but never inaccessible, never private, and always gorgeously poetic...
It's a simple tale about a difficult time: the story of the friendship and love between two Irish boys, Jim and Doyler (one poor, the other poorer) in the years leading up to the Easter Rising. The period is brilliantly evoked: the wealth (faux or true) of the gentry contrasted with the abject poverty of so many others, the incredible sociopolitical power wielded by the Roman Catholic Church, the overwhelming depressive feeling of being colonized by the British as well as the fears of those who've thrived (or at least endured) during the British regime, the stirrings of nationalism, the rationalization of violence, the events of the Rising itself. One could make a case for the core theme of this novel to be that of rebellion---that of the country echoing that of the boys, their mentor, their families---with all the plotting, secrets, fear, and frustration that such rebellion entails.
It's a heartbreaking book. It doesn't take a romantic view of Ireland, though there are romantics a-plenty among the cast of characters. It can be painful to see someone's idealism break like a wave against the rock of an unjust law, a social paradigm, an historical event. And it's also wonderful to experience someone pulling a moral, true action from beneath a facade of politesse or a lifelong habit of obedience.
I cried at the end. The plot crescendoes like a great cresting wave of events, emotion, loss, and love, and I felt it in my gut. Maybe it had a little more resonance for me because my dad had cousins who died in the Rising, but this is a book for anyone to read who likes a character-driven story that is beautifully told.
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Format: Hardcover
The tragedy of this book is that thoughtful people who might overwise read it may not because they perceive it as a "gay" novel, whatever that means. This is a gay novel in the way BELOVED is a black novel or PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT is a Jewish novel. A book that anyone who loves serious literature should read, it has all the things I look for in a good novel: an involved plot, wonderful character development and beautiful language. If you believe the old fashioned novel is dead, At SWIM TWO BOYS should convince you otherwise. It actually feels like a 19th century novel in its epic quality. Yes, the three main characters are gay; and this book is as good as any-- perhaps better than any with gay characters I can recall. Almost 600 pages long-- you will be amazed at how quickly the pages fly by-- the novel is set in Ireland in 1915 and 1916. The three main characters, two teenage boys, Jim and Doyler and an adult, MacMurrough, become as real to you as your friends and family. These characters possess a resilience and courage that will make you care for them desperately. Ultimately they will break your heart.
Mr. O'Neill's prose is fine indeed. One example: there is a wonderful scene when MacMurrough watches Jim leave him. "A terrible fear shook him, a fear for his boy and what the future might hold. Lest he should stumble and the crowd should find him. For we live as angels among the Sodomites. And every day the crowd finds some one of us out. . . There is no grand mistake. Aristotle wrote something that Augustine got wrong that Aquinas codified in law. . . What hates is madness. There's no reason, only madness. . . Who but a madman could revile this boy?" This is NOT the love that dare not speak its name.
Words used to describe this novel sound trite: "honor," "optimism," "friendship," "patriotism," "love." We can only hope Mr. O'Neill does not take 10 years to write another novel.
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