It took the threat of a local appearance by Irish writer Jamie O’Neill to get me to finally read his brilliant At Swim, Two Boys (Scribner, 2001), which has been weighing down my to-read stack for about three years. O’Neill spent ten years on At Swim while working as a night porter in a London psychiatric hospital. Set in and around Dublin in 1915, against the backdrop of Ireland’s struggle for independence from Britain, the novel tells the story of two 16-year-old boys: Jim, a handsome, intelligent, and shy shop owner’s son, and Doyler, the dark-haired, more worldly son of a dung man. They become fast friends and eventually long to be more, but are constrained by class and tradition; their desire for freedom mirrors their country’s. Jim and Doyler’s tender, halting romance is portrayed as respectfully as any I’ve seen in fiction, but O’Neill’s writing lifts the book far beyond the familiar contours of the gay or historical novel. The language is gorgeous–words like suaviloquence, gemmily, and skinamalink sent me early and often to the dictionary, but after a while I quit looking them up and just let them sing. As Story Week’s guest author, O’Neill appears twice: on a panel discussion, “Censorship: The Menace of Story,” and at a reading and discussion of his work with Columbia writing prof Andrew Allegretti. Tue 3/22, 1 PM (panel), Columbia College, library, 624 S. Michigan, and 6:30 PM (reading), Harold Washington Library Center, auditorium, 400 S. State, 312-344-8559 or 312-344-7611.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roderick Feld.