No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

#14: At Swim, Two Boys -- Jamie O'Neill

At Swim Two Boys

A boy says to his friend, "Come swimming in the sea. It's different in the sea, don't ask me why, but you don't find the same anywheres else. There's a freedom I can't explain, like your troubles was left in your pile of clothes." The friend agrees, and one naked leap from the Forty Foot later a pact is made -- that next Easter, the two boys will meet to swim the treacherous path from the Forty Foot to the beacon of light at Muglin's Rock. "Are we straight?" asks Doyler. "We're straight as a rush," says Jim.

The focus of this novel, set in Dublin during the First World War, is the relationship between two teenage boys, Jim Mack and Doyler Doyle. It's not, or not just, a coming-of-age novel, or a gay novel, or an Irish novel. All of the above and much more: the language is rich and playful enough to inspire (require?) comparison with James Joyce, the characterisation vivid and intriguing, and most of the cliches about twentieth-century Ireland are avoided.

It's a difficult novel to write about because there's so much in it, and it works at so many different levels. The growing admiration (first friendship, then more) between Jim and Doyler; the gathering tension in the community; the rigid hierarchy of the class structure, and the penalties enforced for undermining it.

If that sounds dark and grim, it's not: or not at first. (To me, the first half of the novel is daylit, the second half takes place under cover of darkness. A massive and inaccurate generalisation, but the atmosphere does change: and the pivotal phrase is right at the end of Part One, when for the first time the year is plainly stated. "Next Easter," says one, and, "Easter 1916," says the other. And, despite all the contextual detail (Jim's brother away in the Army in Turkey; Jim's father knitting socks for soldiers; hints of socialism) I hadn't registered the date: hadn't realised that history was not on their side.

Nothing is stated, nothing is spoken between Jim and Doyler for a long while. But Brother Polycarp, in charge of the marching band at the school they both attend, is keen on praying with his arm 'round Jim; and Doyler, it transpires, has been noticed -- and is avidly pursued -- by MacMurrough, scion of local nobility who's just been released from two years' hard labour for the crime of having sex with a chauffeur-mechanic. Or possibly the crime of having been found out. (One can't help wondering if he'd have been prosecuted for the same crime with a member of the upper classes.)

MacMurraugh's borderline schizophrenic, with aspects of his character manifesting as distinct personalities. 'Scrotes', based on an aged academic he befriended in prison, epitomises his intellect: 'Nanny Tremble' takes care of his emotions and his need for comfort; and his libido, unfettered by custom or moral concerns, is known as Dick.

Dick has a lot to say for himself.

I've said that the novel focusses on Jim and Doyler, but sometimes I think it's also the story of MacMurrough's redemption, of him learning again to do the decent thing, how to rise above his baser instincts: of seeing in Jim and Doyler's relationship something precious and valuable that's to be nurtured rather than abused or sabotaged.

At Swim, Two Boys is also a novel about fathers. Mr Mack's very name (Mac-who?) is a signal that he's cut himself off from his ancestors, perhaps to climb that social ladder. Doyler Doyle (whose forename, mentioned only in passing, is actually Danny) is his mother's son, a bastard of unknown paternity; he has his step-father's name forced upon him, forename and surname both, but that's not who he is. Perhaps his growing politicisation, his involvement with the rebellion, is a quest for identity as much as his search for sexual identity. And MacMurraugh, whose family is represented only by his elderly and aristocratic aunt, has shamed his name -- a famous one in Irish history, at least within the scope of the novel -- by his 'selfish' indulgences.

Not to mention the MacMurrough household's maid Nancy, pregnant by Jim's brother, who's not coming back.

The novel could have finished a chapter or two before it did and still been complete, in terms of one of the narrative arcs. That it does not end with that reunion is harrowing but somehow right: fits the story into its wider context much better than an insistent focus on the interpersonal elements would have done.

And, did I mention, glorious prose? Visual and lyric and with each voice distinct and almost audible. Mr Mack, walking up to the big house: 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.

I'd love to hear this read aloud -- and there are some audio files via the author's site for the book, as well as an unused passage that's oddly delightful.

The bay was blue as the sky, a tinge deeper, and curiously raised-looking when viewed dead on. The way the sea would be sloping to the land.

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