The hunger for liberation—political, emotional, and sexual—gnaws at the big heart of this young Irish writer’s engrossing, often very moving debut.
The title, of course, alludes to “Flann O’Brien’s” subversive comic masterpiece At Swim-Two-Birds. But O’Neill’s real influences appear to be James Joyce’s Ulysses and James Plunkett’s Strumpet City, a romantic-epic portrayal of Dublin beset by the Troubles. O’Neill focuses initially on Arthur Mack, a widowed Dublin shopkeeper and Boer War veteran whose stubborn loyalty to Britain conflicts with the swirling energies of incipient rebellion against “foreign” rule that capture his neighbors. If Mack is a dreamy, distracted Leopold Bloom, his 16-year-old son James, a model youth seemingly destined for the priesthood or a teaching career, is a kind of Stephen Dedalus—a passive, well-meaning boy whose life changes under the charismatic influence of his pal Doyler Doyle, a rebel with several causes who draws James into a plan to swim to a nearby island and plant a green flag (symbolizing Ireland’s independence). The rapidly growing love the boys share is interrupted when Doyler is imprisoned for “sedition,” then absorbed in his duties as a Volunteer soldier—and is consummated, with bitter irony, when the Dublin streets become a blood-soaked “nighttown.” O’Neill’s replete characterizations of the aforementioned are deepened by the complex relationships each forms with such other figures as Jim’s stoical, quietly perceptive Aunt Sawney, aristocratic Irish nationalist Eveline MacMurrough, and the latter’s adult nephew Anthony, a sardonic homosexual (formerly convicted of “indecency”) whose imaginary “conversations” with his deceased cellmate explore both Anthony’s reluctant involvement with the Volunteers and his conflicted (and, really, rather contrived) dealings with both Doyler and James.
Excess and overstatement do crop up, but O’Neill’s warm empathy with his characters, stinging dialogue, and authentic tragic vision more than compensate: altogether, his first the best literary news out of Ireland since the maturity of Roddy Doyle.