All young Jimmy Mack wants--at least at first--is to trade his breeches for a pair of long pants so that the boys at school will have one less thing to tease him about. He lives in a muddy suburb of Dublin with his social-climbing shopkeeper father. "The Macks is on the up," Mr. Mack is fond of saying--an optimism facilitated by his steadfast refusal to take note of the boot that keeps kicking him down to the bottom rung of the ladder.
Soon enough, Jimmy will.
It's 1916 in Dublin. Young Irish boys who signed up to fight for their homeland are finding themselves fighting England's battles in Belgium. A rigid class structure keeps half the country near starvation. The powerful Catholic Church has a spell cast over the population. Gaelic as a mother tongue is dying out, and with it a sense of what makes the Irish Irish. More than any slum, the situation positively stinks of revolution and opportunity. And in 1916 Dublin there are plenty waiting to make the most of that opportunity: socialists, nationalists, Catholics looking to drive out the Anglican devils, even a certain layer of the upper classes that wants to build its own fiefdoms.
In At Swim, Two Boys, Jamie O'Neill stirs all this up into a yeasty brew of adolescence, nationalism, and forbidden sexuality. (In these themes, the book recalls Patrick McCabe's more comic Breakfast on Pluto.) The sexual is inextricably bound with the political: Before young Jim gets caught up in the various revolutions about him, he first is charmed by the tilt of his friend Doyler's cap and the free and easy way he has with his, um, flute. Soon Jim wants more than just to shed his breeches. He wants Doyler to love him back. He wants the muscular fops at the Forty Foot beach to notice him. He might eventually even want justice and a free Ireland.
O'Neill spent ten years toiling over At Swim, Two Boys, his third novel, while--if the publisher's promos are to be believed--working nights in a mental institution. His writing is dense with half-sentences, which makes reading it akin to listening in on someone else's private thoughts. And he has a penchant for making you puzzle things out on your own. (Patience: If it's not clear on the first reference, there will be a second.) Every polished sentence sings with O'Neill's own authentic County Dublin vernacular. In the end, At Swim, Two Boys is a love story. Amid the incipient Troubles, it's a beautiful thing when Doyler calls Jim, in the old Gaelic, cara macree--pal o' my heart.