At Swim,
Two Boys

Jamie O'Neill
(Scribner)

    "Mr. Mack?"
    "Yes, Brother?"
    "Do we detain you?"
    "No Brother."
    "The phrase
    fidus Achates. You were asked to decline it."
    Effortlessly he did so. But he did not look at the brother. And he sat down afterwards before being told.
    "Achates," said the brother. "The friend of Aeneas. Virgil has given him the epithet fidus and the phrase has come down to us as the paradigm of friendship. A bosom companion, one might say. A friend of one's heart even.
    Animæ demidium meæ, says Horace of Virgil, meaning the half of his soul."

It's Dublin 1915 - 1916, a time of perfervid passion for god and country: Ireland's fatal, flawed rising but also the rising of young love --- and mark the words. Not only an uprising, but the rising sea, the sea in which two boys swim together, at swim, two boys. And thereby, the rising of the tide of love, or, more bluntly, the verge.

World War I has begun and has already left its many seeds of death. And with the English --- along with the French and Germans --- embarking on the murder of several million young men in the fields of Flanders, it is a time for the Irish to rise up in rebellion.

A year before the action, we have four participants. There is the clerk's shy son (Jim Mack--- fifteen), a friend who collects the city's sewage (Doyler --- also fifteen), the elegant lady of Ballygihen (Eveline --- ageless), and her disgraced nephew (MacMurrough --- late twenties/early thirties). Jim Mack is worried about self-abuse and going to hell. Doyler is pure ruffian, a virulent Irish patriot. Eveline spouts upper-class French and worries about the servants, what to wear, and her country. MacMurrough appears in his uniform as the captain of the Irish Volunteers and talks to the ghosts of his prison past.

They all admire the boys (even as the boys even admire each other):

    MacMurrough conjured Arcadian groves where lover and beloved, ephebes both, reclined upon the coarse grass. Cicadas sang in the boughs above, where olives swelled in the sun. Or it was later in the palaestra when, weary of wrestling, lover draws down the tender blade to scrape the beloved's sweat. Of serious things they speak.

Aunt Eveline, who sees one of the choir boys at mass, readying for war, thinks:

    He would go out, this young Ireland, he and a necessary few. In the beauty of his boyhood he would offer his life, by the overwhelming sword to die: a ravishment really: and Irishmen everywhere would shake for shame.

Boys and love. It washes through At Swim, Two Boys like the tide along the Irish coast, is the stuff that holds it together. Jim Mack and Doyler lie about on a rock at the edge of the sea, seen from afar by MacMurrough:

    In the dip of that rock he knew there formed a primal unity, which was not, as Aristophanes had thought, an egg-shaped being, rather a twin-backed flapping seal; that unity of jealous gods had sought to sunder, not reckoning the human heart.

When Doyler disappears for a few months, Jim makes a rendezvous with a soldier at the Forty Foot (the pier at the ocean), a soldier who he imagines to be his now buried-among-the-poppies brother Gordie, and (loving shades of Joyce!) there is passion above the sea:

    Waves dashed on the rocks, tumbling over in their hurry, creaming as far as the path below. Great gurgling sucks, like the sea drew breath, then roaring through chasms and spouting out in a froth of foam. It seemed to hang in the air, the foam, and shine of its own luminescence. The wind was boastful in his ear ... He felt it in the pit of his stomach, the exhilaration of the deep, and the mystery of the deep reaching up to take him.

§     §     §

As always in Ireland, there is the Mother Church. Father Polycarp pontificates on Virgil, the "friend of one's heart," pines for Jim Mack, is jealous of his Doyler. But when Jim Mack finds himself being fondled by the self-same Polycarp, there comes a distancing:

    He was sensible of this detachment in Brother Polycarp's room when the brother would roam his hand on his skin: he did not feel but he saw himself felt. His mind's eye watched a boy. It watched him at home and it watched him at school and it was watching him now at the Forty Foot. And looking back, it seemed to Jim that he had never prayed for himself at all but for this other boy that his mind's eye watched, a rawney-looking molly of a boy, the son of a quakebuttock, a coward himself, praying that he should hear his calling and join the brothers like Our Lady wished.

Later, the good father thinks on this fifteen-year-old, ruddy-cheeked, thin-faced boy,

    Jim Mack, Jim Mack, his heart sang a canticle of songs. How beautiful he was and comely in delights! His cheeks were as the turtle dove's, his neck as of ivory, his throat most sweet. Such is my beloved, and he is my friend.

    The boy enraptured him. What joy it was to pray with him, to hear the delicate pant of his soul as heavenward it soared. There She reigned, resplendent with miracles, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, but terrible as an army set in array. In the blue and stelliferous light he could not bide, but the innocent soul of the boy thrilled to Her presence. Next week your feast, O Queen of Heaven. I have vowed to you my darling.

    For the flesh is weak and the blood unruly and how else to atone the sins of the heart than dedicate to Her the heart's desire? Receive my gift, love him as I would I would, pray for my wrung and twisted soul.

§     §     §

Boy-boy and boy-man-boy love appear here in the classical, Spartan mode, à la Paul Fussel-A. E. Housman-Wilfred Owen. The writing of the love between Doyler and Jim Mack is as sensual as Joyce writing in, say, his loving passionate final nightblooming saga of Molly Bloom and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

But what ultimately compels the reader is more than this love not then called gay so dangerous for the time. It's the other equally dangerous passion --- patriotic love for an independent Ireland, cursed as it is with the rule of England and the dogma of the Church.

Finally there is the passion of that fertile fecund language, where one finds the seeds of tragedy as constant as "the ever-changing never-changing sea" --- a grand language (a language of the conquerors of 700 years) to narrate the appalling history of a people who have never and will never escape the twin blights of the Roman gods and English soldiers. The love of Jim Mack and Doyler --- and the love that MacMurrough has for their love --- thus are eventually destroyed by this bitter counterpoint, the plagues of spirit and patriotism that can never be hedged, can never be gainsaid.

§     §     §

The author doesn't let us forget that we're on the streets of Dublin, and the geography of that city as much a part of this story as it was for Ulysses --- the drinking and carousing, the songs and the newsboys and the horses and the trolleys and the rare automobiles (Eveline has one of the few in town). On the streets, in the homes and the pubs, there's the music of words, the songs of Ireland, the delicious puns: Doyler to Jim Mack, "Are you straight?" The priests? "Most fathers are hard to conceive." After a night with Doyler, when questioned by his aunt, "MacMurrough laughed, a single ejaculated breath." MacMurrough was a dandy before he was cut down in his prime by two years in Wandsworth Prison; and we find there the price of the "love that dare not speak its name:" how much is a wand's worth?

The revolutionaries? Eveline

    turned the hasp and the casement opened. She inhaled the breath from the sea. Casement, how very beautiful was the word. She spoke it softly. A decidedly beautiful name, Casement. "He is far from the land," she softly hummed.

Jim Mack's father is called "General Maid," because he knits socks for the boys in the trenches. But he is remembered by all as much for his knitting as for running from battle in the midst of the Boer War; thus, there's the hint of the not-so-straight about him: "Quare fine day," says one of the loafers at the door of the pub.

Throughout, there are the thrown coins of the rich intonation of English mixed with Erse: "gigglepot," "conk," "the neck of him," "the pratties," "the fecker," "the shawlie." There are the words for passion: "rise," "knob," "dick" and "dic" (for dictionary).

There are too the wonderful literate Jesuitical dialogues, reminding us of Buck Mulligan and Stephen Dædalus, or Dædalus and his friends in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. This is MacMurrough, conversing with his now-departed cell-mate:

    --- What did your aunt intend, Scrotes asked, when she spoke of the good people taking you away?

    --- The fairies, MacMurrough answered. They take the beautiful boy and leave a changeling brute in his place.

    He looked back up the lawns to where the boys still paraded. In their golden kilts they looked like tulips, tulips which glowed and marched in the dusk.

    --- We're gods, he said. And these our playthings.

    --- There are many gods, returned Scrotes. Many to whom even you are but a whim.

    --- Ah yes, scaly-eyed Themis, guardian of law.

    --- One was thinking of Eros, whose arrows pierce and bring life.

§     §     §

Thus we have a rich Irish stew of words and word games, an extended lyric epic --- awash with literary overtones, sly allusions to the likes of Wilde, Joyce, Flann O'Brien, and Beckett. But a great novel needs more than poetry, allusions, and puns. It needs worthy and recognizable characters, it needs an engaging plot line, and it needs love --- not only love between the characters, but love between author and characters.

They're all here but I'm at a loss how to convey the scope of it. There is a lively, often very funny dialogue, there is sheer narrative beauty and --- overall --- there is the potent mix of love and war. I found myself reflecting that it's a rare work of art that leaves us reviewers at a loss for words: after all, we fabricate the world from them.

At Swim, Two Boys takes us to the heights but then it brings us to the depths. I found my eyes misting during the last few pages. I suspect I was grieving not only the ending of it all --- I didn't want it to end --- but also the tragedy of it all: losing friends to the madness that was, and is, and presumably always will be the madness they call Ireland.

--- Lolita Lark

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