O'Neill, Jamie 1962-
O'NEILL, Jamie 1962-
PERSONAL: Born 1962, in Dublin, Ireland. Education: Attended Presentation College.
ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Simon & Schuster, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.
CAREER: Author; Cassell Hospital, London, England, night porter.
Disturbance, Weidenfeld and Nicolson (London, England), 1989.
Kilbrack, or Who Is Nancy Valentine?, Weidenfeld and Nicolson (London, England), 1990.
At Swim, Two Boys?, Scribner (New York, NY), 2001.
SIDELIGHTS: A seeming overnight sensation, but actually only after ten years of hard work, Jamie O'Neill burst onto the big time literary scene in 2001 with the publication of At Swim, Two Boys, for which Scribner paid him an advance of 250,000 pounds, the largest sum paid in Britain to an Irish writer. Actually, O'Neill was not completely unknown, with two previous works, Disturbance and Kilbrack, to his credit. Disturbance is the story of a young boy who suffers the death of his mother, his father's stroke, and the systematic bulldozing of his neighborhood, and retreats into the making and later unmaking of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. Books reviewer Jane Dorrell wrote, "It is well done, if a shade too reminiscent of Ian McEwan, to whom O'Neill has already been compared." For Times Literary Supplement reviewer Anne-Marie Conway, "There are hints that the author may be attempting some comment on the state of modern Ireland … but if so, the message has been lost on the journey." At any rate, neither title established O'Neill's reputation, and according to Guardian reporter Stephen Moss, "He more or less disowns them now, and says he can't even bear to open Kilbrack."
Then came a complete upheaval in O'Neill's life. His longtime lover, well-known British talk show host Russell Harty, died suddenly in 1988. In the midst of his grief, O'Neill had to deal with press intrusions and the sudden loss of his home, a cottage where he and Harty had been living, but which Harty's family was determined to reclaim. At age twenty-seven O'Neill found himself alone, destitute, and unable to write. In 1990 he took a job as a night porter at a London hospital, a job that allowed him to start writing again, on a laptop he took to work each night.
The result, after ten years of research and writing, was At Swim, Two Boys, "an amazingly touching tale of two young lads growing up quickly in the shadow of both World War I and an uprising against the British in their native Ireland," according to an M2 Best Books reviewer. The two boys, upright James Mack and rebellious Doyler Doyle, whose fathers fought together in the Boer War, conceive a plan to swim out to an island in the middle of the Irish Sea and plant the green flag of Irish independence by Easter Sunday, 1916. As they train for their task, the two fall in love, a love that is interrupted when Doyle is arrested for sedition and finally consummated during the bloody aftermath of the Dublin uprising on that fateful Easter Sunday.
"It isn't easy to make us live the first love of boys around the age of 16, and to do it without prurience or sentimentality; you can get too close at times to the chat of bachelor classics masters, all about Spartan armies of lovers and suchlike," wrote New York Times contributor Michael Pye. "O'Neill has a device to help him, although it doesn't seem like a device: he shows how the lovers' closeness depends, in a dozen subtle ways, on the presence of a mentor." That mentor is Anthony MacMurrough, an Oscar Wilde type who has served time for sodomy in an English prison and returned to Ireland at the behest of his Aunt Eve, an aristocrat who runs guns for Irish revolutionaries. Various priests, servants, and Irish patriots of various stripes fill out the cast of characters.
While the title is a play on Flann O'Brien's At-Swim-Two-Birds, many reviewers noted the book's similarities to the work of James Joyce, particularly in its use of language. As Star Tribune contributor Steve Murray wrote, "O'Neill's allusive, lyrical and ambitious novel fuses the personal and the political while offering some of the loveliest dense prose this side of Ulysses. … That O'Neill has the guts to strut through the master's turf is startling enough, but the author's giddy love of language (including obscure dialect) justifies the moxie." For Observer contributor Adam Mars-Jones, "So much is borrowed from Ulysses, almost page by page, that it seems impossible for the debt ever to be made good. Yet the book makes an impact far beyond pastiche." For a Kirkus Reviews contributor, "Excess and overstatement do crop up, but O'Neill's warm empathy with his characters, stinging dialogue, and authentic tragic vision more than compensate."
For O'Neill himself, true authenticity was a major part of his writing, all the more so because of the unfamiliar gay content. As he told the Lambda Book Report, "I didn't want to present the story as something new out of Ireland—the shock, the horror, of the pink shamrock—but as something that was always there, only we hadn't focussed on it before. My boys had to be Irish—their flute music, attempts at Gaelic, hurling, their being Catholic—as I would later maintain that their being in love with each other was Irish and natural to them."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Books, March, 1989, Jane Dorrell, review of Disturbance, p. 22.
Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 2002, review of At Swim, Two Boys, p. 14.
M2 Best Books, May 29, 2002, review of At Swim, Two Boys.
New York Times, March 17, 2002, Michael Pye, "Dubliners," p. 8.
Observer (London, England), September 16, 2001, Adam Mars-Jones, "His Master's Joyce."
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), June 23, 2002, Steve Murray, review of At Swim, Two Boys.
Times Literary Supplement, March 31, 1989, Anne Marie Conway, "Some Sort of Meantime," p. 344.*