Fourth shipment, and the best one yet
We got strawberries in our CSA share this week! Very exciting. Every year, there is mention of the possibility of there occasionally being fruit along with the vegetables, but this is the first time it's ever happened. Mmm, beautiful strawberries. And it's not just the strawberries--we also got madly curling garlic scapes, a head of green romaine, a big bunch of curly kale, asparagus, a little cloud of pea tendrils, and green onions. An excellent shipment all around, full of a things I know I love (garlic scapes, asparagus, kale) and things that are new to me (pea tendrils!). I haven't investigated how to use the pea tendrils yet, and I'm assuming that they just go in salad, but I'd love to hear about anything you've done with them!
Pea tendrils. See how pretty?II. We know their dream: enough / To know they dreamed and are dead
I stayed up late last night to finish Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim, Two Boys
. It is an ambitious book, 650 pages long and loaded with allusions to all sorts of Irish literature (Joyce, Yeats, the obvious nod to Flann O’Brien in the title…), but I don’t think it’s as great a work as it thinks it is. Still, it’s a book that hit me in all of my weak spots; I loved it despite its flaws. Having an Irish-American’s romantic fascination with the troubled history of Ireland and a queer girl’s love of seeing queer identities reinstated to times and places where they were erased, how could I have done anything but love this book?
The story revolves around three men living on the outskirts of Dublin: Jim Mack, Doyler Doyle, and Anthony MacMurrough. Jim and Doyler are teenagers, best friends who eventually become lovers. MacMurrough is older, a son of the local nobility, returned from England where he has just done two years of hard labor after being convicted of “gross indecency” with his chauffeur. Jim is really the central figure of the book, and he’s a heartbreaking character—a beautiful boy, a sort of holy innocent who moves through the novel radiating with the power of loving and being loved. I liked Jim for his devotion to and longing for Doyler, but MacMurrough was my favorite. I didn’t care for him at all when he first came on the scene—he seemed like just an obnoxious cynic who used Doyler as a bit of rough trade—but O’Neill gradually reveals his pain and transforms him into a meaningful character. Much of the first half of the novel is devoted to MacMurrough’s recovery from the experiences he had in prison, and his slow realization that being a man who loves men does not have to be a source of shame and horror, but could rather be understood—and maybe even embraced?—as an identity.
If you scratch the surface of O’Neill’s love story, you will realize that underneath the romance there is a novel about redemption. I loved the way O’Neill allowed redemption to flow through his story, each character elevating another in a sort of ongoing cycle. MacMurrough finds his redemption through loving and protecting Jim; by being faithful to Doyler, Jim redeems an old betrayal that poisoned the friendship between their fathers, etc. The obvious presence of the Church (it is an Irish novel, after all), with its narrow definitions of sin and redemption, effectively underscores O’Neill’s humanistic view.
O’Neill treats his historical material with far too heavy a hand. Jim and Doyler make a pact to swim to an island in Dublin Bay together on Easter, 1916; this necessitates a lot of repetition of the phrase “Easter, 1916,” and each time it’s like an elbow nudging the reader in the ribs. “You know what’s going to happen, don’t you? On Easter, 1916? They don’t know but you do, right?” Yes, for god’s sake, I know. And of course it does happen, and O’Neill gives us the details of the Easter Rising, and the Rising is just as grandiose, dumb, brave, and botched as it always is, but whatever power accrues here comes only from the truth of the names and events; the connection to this particularly story feels artificial. If you want to read about the Easter Rising, read Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry
, or better yet, just read Yeats’s poem.
O’Neill’s prose also feels heavy-handed at times, Oirish in a way that Flann O’Brien would certainly mock. And why, if you’re going to write like that, would you invite that mockery by titling your book after At Swim-Two-Birds
? Which reminds me that many of the allusions in the book seem to serve no purpose other than to show us that O’Neill has read Joyce and all the other Irish heavyweights, but so what?
And now I’m going to talk about the ending, so if you think you might want to read this book, avert your eyes from this paragraph. Oh, the ending. I didn’t like it, but I don’t know what else O’Neill could have done. When you send your characters into a war zone, as Dublin was during Easter week of 1916, you have only two choices: they can live or they can die. If everyone had survived and the book had ended with Jim and Doyler side by side, in love and refusing to give up the fight for an Irish Ireland, I would have felt like the ending was fake, unsatisfying, and impossible to believe. Because that doesn’t happen, I still find it unsatisfying and I’m annoyed that this is yet another gay love story that has to end in tragedy. Yet another Irish story that has to end in tragedy. So I suppose it’s no-win.
For all it’s flaws, though, it has some true strengths. If only O’Neill could have left out the sweep of history and stuck to what he’s good at. He draws wonderful characters, he’s great at the intricacies of the human heart, and he’s masterful at small moments, like the beautiful scene of Jim and Doyler in bed together for the first time, forswearing sex until their mystical swim, but luxuriating in each other presence, each other’s skin, or the different intimacies of Jim’s long talks with MacMurrough. I think you could probably make quite a good movie out of this book, and I’m a little surprised that nobody’s tried.