Mark Harris
April 05, 2002 AT 05:00 AM EST

At Swim, Two Boys

type
Book
Current Status
In Season
author
Jamie O'Neill
publisher
Scribner
genre
Fiction

We gave it an A

A gay novel, an Irish novel, and a landmark on both counts, Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim, Two Boys (Scribner, $28) is a work of wild, vaulting ambition and achievement that transcends any genre label a critic might be foolish enough to impose on it. The place is Dublin. The time is 1915-16, the eve of the bloody Easter Uprising. And our heroes are a pair of 16-year-olds: Jim, the studious, tentative son of a shopkeeper, and Doyler, a brash, impoverished laborer, each of whom, under the guidance of an older onlooker, falls in stunned but sure-hearted love with the other as the terrifying onrush of history moves to engulf them all. If linking free sexuality with a free Ireland seems an act of novelistic hubris, O’Neill is astonishingly up to the task. His writing is rich and allusive (think Joyce, Wilde, Flann O’Brien), his language is blisteringly exuberant, and his vision is both generous enough to take in the sociological sweep of a nation and acute enough to create one of the most psychologically accurate and moving love stories in recent literature. In short: Wow.

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