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Under the Spell of ‘Ulysses’

Newsday, May 19, 2002. New York.
A writer fashions a gay love story out of Dublin dialect and made-up words – and finds himself compared to Ireland’s literary giants. By Tom Beer

Dublin native Jamie O’Neill moved back to Ireland last year, after living in England for the better part of 19 years. He bought a house with his boyfriend, Julien, in Galway, in western Ireland. “It’s a place called Gortachalla,” he explains. “I’d been there for about two days when the postman knocks on the door and says, ‘O’Neill,’ reading the envelope. ‘That’s not a Galway name.’ And I say, ‘No, it’s not.’ He says, ‘There was a hurler named O’Neill. Are you...?’ ‘No, no, I’m not related.’ Then Julien comes down the stairs, and the postman says, ‘And that wouldn’t be your brother either, would it?’ I say, ‘No, this is my boyfriend. He’s French. We’ve moved here on the head of a novel I’ve just had published. It’s about two boys falling in love in the Easter Rebellion of 1916.’ “ O’Neill pauses for maximum effect. “So the postman grabs my hand and shakes it and says enthusiastically, ‘Isn’t it just what Gortachalla needs!’ “

He laughs as he recalls the postman’s unexpected reaction.

The novel he wrote is titled “At Swim, Two Boys” (Scribner, $28), and despite – or perhaps because of – its subject matter, it has enjoyed a similarly warm reception throughout Ireland, Britain and now the United States, where it was recently published to strong reviews. The book is steeped in Irish history, set in the year leading up to the Easter Rising of 1916, when a few thousand rebels tried (and failed) to wrest Dublin from British control – an event considered the birth of modern Ireland.

The central characters – Jim Mack, a sensitive schoolboy, and Doyler Doyle, a young, rough-hewn laborer – find themselves swept up in historical events, not to mention a love affair that is wholly revolutionary itself. “The boys come out of the Irish cultural tradition,” explains O’Neill. “They play Irish music, they speak Gaelic, they’re Catholic, they’re interested in hurling. It’s as natural for them to be in love with each other as it is for them to be Irish – I wanted to show that.”

If O’Neill seems startled by the success of “At Swim, Two Boys,” it’s only because he spent the last 10 years toiling in obscurity. He wrote the novel on a laptop computer during 13-hour night shifts as a receptionist at a London psychiatric hospital.

“It was an ideal job for me,” he observes. “There’s nobody for a receptionist to receive in the middle of the night, so I was the only person awake in the entire hospital, and I could work uninterrupted. It was like getting a grant from the National Health Service.”

Jamie O’Neill is an obscure writer no more. Simon & Schuster paid him a £250,000 advance to publish the book in Britain; worldwide rights plus a film option guarantee that he’ll net a million dollars when all is said and done. Kirkus has called him “the best literary news out of Ireland since the maturity of Roddy Doyle.” “At Swim, Two Boys” has been reviewed widely in the U.S. press and made the cover of The New York Times Book Review. Suddenly, O’Neill’s name is bandied about with the names of such acclaimed Irish writers as John McGahern and Colm Tóibín – idols to the 40-year-old O’Neill, who previously had two small, unsuccessful novels to his credit.

The book’s very title would seem to forge a link to one of the greats of Irish literature, Flann O’Brien, and his comic masterpiece, “At Swim-Two-Birds.” But O’Neill demurs when asked about the connection: “I just liked the words.” And then there’s James Joyce, whom O’Neill clearly emulates. Like Joyce’s “Ulysses,” “At Swim, Two Boys” evokes the vibrant world of early 20th century Dublin: its shops and smells, its pubs and newspaper headlines, its political squabbles and colorful street talk.

O’Neill says he initially went to “Ulysses” as a historical source – “to find out the price of plums in Dublin in 1904” – but that soon the “magic” of Joyce took over. “I don’t think you can read ‘Ulysses’ and not be changed by it,” O’Neill says. “If you’re a writer, anyway. It’s wonderful to see that words can be games. It’s liberating. There are more ways of telling a story than noun–verb–noun.”

Not surprisingly, the word play in “At Swim, Two Boys” comes fast and furious: O’Neill mixes up Irish dialect with anachronistic English (he has a CD-ROM of the entire Oxford English Dictionary stored on that laptop), along with expressions he just plain made up out of his head.

The reader knows what he’s in for right from the novel’s opening sentences: “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.”

“It puts people off, that first chapter,” O’Neill admits. “I know that – they tell me. It’s one of those books that require a certain dedication of the reader. It’s not something you can pick up in the subway and read for 20 minutes.” Not all readers are willing to play along. Writing in the Washington Post, Trevor Butterworth dismissed O’Neill’s style as a “surface play of historical and literary references” and “gluttonous pastiches of Joyce and [Flann] O’Brien (which dazzle only by virtue of being so obvious).” It was one of the few bad reviews the book received, but for O’Neill it stung.

“I think it’s unfair, in a way, that Joyce should be used as a hammer to hit me on the head with,” he says. “I find that some reviews are judging me by too high a standard. ‘Ulysses’ is recognized as the greatest novel of all time. Of course my book’s not as good as ‘Ulysses.’”

Even if he’s not ready to live up to the Joycean gold standard, O’Neill did find that he felt “far more Irish” after all the years of research and writing put into “At Swim, Two Boys.” “When I lived in London, people would ask me, ‘Are you Irish?’” he says. “And I’d answer, ‘No, I’m gay.’ Because the two things didn’t go together – in my head, anyway. And I wanted this book to ask the same question and answer most affirmatively: Yes, I am Irish. And here are 200,000 words to prove it.”

Tom Beer is a writer in New York.

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