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A Nation of the Heart: One Mormon Missionary's Experience with Queer Lit

In 2001, the British publishing house, Scribner, debuted an ambitious tome of a novel, near 600 pages, that would be considered beside Joyce and Wilde, Forster; and (of course, given that the novel draws its title from the form of At Swim, Two Birds) Brian O’Nolan, writing under the pseudonym, Flann O’Brien. It’s won awards and spawned both a long-running dance production as well as a stage play. The man who wrote it, Jamie O’Neill, worked as a hospital porter in London during the 10+ years it took him to write the novel, typing up its 200,000 words during quiet patches and lunch breaks. According to a 2002 interview between O’Neill and MetroWeekly:

“The story grew with the telling of it, to tell you the truth. I describe the novel like a good lover. It angered me. It had me despairing at times. But it never bored me — the writing of it. My boyfriend, who’s been with me all through it, was convinced that I’d be dead before the book was finished and they’d be taking the pages from my rigor mortised fingers.”

O’Neill drew direct from his childhood—the Dublin suburb of Kingstown—where the novel’s title characters, Jim and Doyler, make the pact that binds the novel’s primary conceit: a swim, on Easter 1916, out into Dublin Bay to the distant (in)famous Muglins rock to (re)claim it for Ireland. If O’Neill ever made the swim, he does not say.

Mark Harris of Entertainment Weekly, writing in 2002, summarized the novel this way: “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…falls in stunned but sure-hearted love with the other as the terrifying onrush of history moves to engulf them.” O’Neill, when asked by MetroWeekly how much of his experience formed the novel, said:

“I have to say that the closest I’ve come to these guys is being sixteen. I did go to the same school Jim goes to. Where they go swimming is called the Forty Foot, and that’s where I used to hang out when I was playing truant from school. I love that place. That coastline of south Dublin means freedom to me, because there’s a vista of the sea. That notion of eternity or infinity began there for me. There’s also something about swimming. There is this release from your bounds. It’s a nice feeling, especially in the freezing cold Irish sea.”

Much of the novel intones O’Neill’s own atmospheric voice, its multiple narrations, its period colloquial, its meandering almost stream-of-consciousness syntax. It’s song. Or, I would claim it is—and I don’t think many of the book’s readers would disagree. At one point, Anthony MacMurrough, who is Wildean in character and the novel’s philosophical backbone—who David Halperin of the London Review of Books claims chiefly makes “homosexuality suddenly matter to our ways of thinking about Irish national identity”—is observing a washerwoman at her duties, listening as she rocks her babe:

“She had her wicker load as usual on her head. How could a burden lend such poise, he wondered, for she appeared to glide along, as though the dirt on her feet were one with the grass. Her face was stern, probably older than her years. She was singing… Her song was of a swan on a lake but her singing held the sadness of Ireland, the lost lonely wastes of sadness. He saw the black water and the declining sun and the swan dipping down, its white wings flashing, and slowing and slowing till silver ripples carried it home. It was a scene which seemed like the heart of this land. The lowing sun and the one star waking, white wings on a black water, and the smell of rain, and the long lane fading where a voice comes in the falling night.”

It is unsurprising to me now, having read the novel perhaps fifteen or twenty times, that Mark Harris would say the book is one of “vaulting ambition and achievement that transcends any genre label a critic might be foolish enough to impose on it.” Of course, when I found the book, I knew none of this.

I have avoided naming it till now. In fact, I’m still avoiding naming it. I’ve hedged and danced around saying the name. Partly because I hope you’ll want you to discover the novel, maybe a little, like I did—probably not strangled in a necktie and badged as a Mormon missionary at barely twenty; but instead perhaps as rooted, your surroundings momentarily forgotten, both baffled and thrilled as your eyes alight upon the title.

Partly because there is something in the title that speaks, I think, the unspeakable. Oscar Wilde himself murmured this, the love that dare not say its name; as O’Neill himself explains to MetroWeekly, “it was usually—I’m going to give you some Latin now—pecatum inter Christianos non nominandum est: the sin, the crime, amongst Christians which couldn’t be spoken.” The novel is At Swim, Two Boys.

I avoided naming it also, because, quite honestly, there’s no possible way to relate who I was at the time I first read it nor how deeply and utterly and irrevocably the novel shifted my whole plane of being. It feels hyperbolic and vulgar to write this. And equally ridiculous, even futile, to try.

I grew up LDS—“Mormon” for you everyday speakers. And while missionary service (they call it “service,” which is partly to enshrine it with a sense of absolute duty, not unlike the military—and partly to suggest that it is both in service to god and man) is technically voluntary, it is something that most Mormon boys are raised to consider for their entire lives. As culturally expected, even laid out, as is college or marriage, education and family being both requisite to the well-rounded Mormon man. Growing up LDS, I never thought of not going. You know that signature Mormon smile? I wore it, and meant it. (In some sense, I probably still do.) The necktie, the too-big-for-me suit, they seemed as much a part of me as continuing to breathe.

But I also grew up gay. And had ample occasion to feel, though never speak—not till three or four months before my Mormon mission to England—the love that dare not speak its name. To many a young Mormon kid, being gay feels a lot like complete isolation. And it’s a self-imposed kind of aloneness that cannot be captured by words like “lonely” or “lost” or “backwards” or “vile.”

I found the book, depressed, sixteen months into my two-year mission, in my sixth assigned area and with my eighth companion. At this point, I think I’d been seeing the mission psychologist for three or four months, something my mission president felt was important and paid for himself; at the psychologist’s gentle urging, I was already considering a decision to leave the Mormon Church. And while she was enormously helpful in assisting me to form a future, day-to-day, I felt hopelessly alone.

What lurks inside complete isolation? Oddly, more talking than you might realize. More waiting. A whole lot of fumbling. Misunderstanding, compartmentalization, even a self-imposed rendering of both. At one point in At Swim, Two Boys, Jim goes to confess to his priest his first brush with the sin of homosexuality and his priest utterly fails to understand Jim’s confession. The scene is actually quite comical: no matter how many times Jim tries to correct the priest, again and again the priest assumes that it was a woman and not a soldier that Jim had dillydallied with. So says O’Neill:

“It glimmered upon [Jim], over the days that followed, why the priest had not understood his sin. He had not understood – how could he? – for no sin had been named that covered his wickedness. What he had done was so sinful, so unspeakably so, of such aberrance, to such unnatural degree, that the Church, for all her far-seeing and deep-searching, her vision and penetration, had not thought to provide against its happening.”

My Sunday school classmates talked of girls, endlessly, and half-noted my silence, but still “gay” only meant “stupid” to them. It wasn’t that homosexuality did not exist in these circles. On the contrary, it’s that—to the Mormon mind—it was then so foreign, so beside the point, that they could truly believe, when, say, condemning gay marriage to the public (as put by former church president, Gordon B. Hinckley), that “we are not anti-gay, we are pro family.” I have rarely met a people—though ironically I’ve met my share of Portlanders like this—so adept at compartmentalizing “evil.”

There’s a ton to my story, much like I’ve only scratched the surface of At Swim, Two Boys. A first relationship, actually before going on my mission, that I was ill-prepared for yet I’m still shocked by how much it did prepare me and embolden me. Unrepentance, surely the beginning of authenticity. Coming out to my family before going, against the recommendation of my church leaders and also a family disaster; though I would learn later that my experiences were pretty mild compared to most of my friends. (I’m lucky to have a ridiculously supportive family: we were all just a little ill-equipped.) How leaving for England and escaping Spokane felt like a good thing to do—for any reason.

Perhaps now I recognize echoes of an irony found in many of At Swim, Two Boys’ accolades and reviews. Nearly everyone comments on how unlikely a pair are subjects like Irish nationalism and gay love. Halperin puts it this way:

“One of O’Neill’s most breathtaking accomplishments in At Swim, Two Boys is to cross the codes of Irish identity and gay identity, making each into a figure for the other, thereby producing at one stroke a gay genealogy of Irishness as well as a specifically Irish image of male homosexuality – a romantic vision of the gay male world as ‘a nation of the heart’.”

When thinking back on my own experiences, this book seems as unexpected a companion to me, then a young Mormon missionary, as any I can imagine. And while I will endlessly fail to relate who I was then, I can only claim that somehow it worked—and I carried it.

At the heart of it, O’Neill succeeded at putting into words truths I had barely begun to think—what Jim calls, before dillydallying with the solider above, “a wish to do something, to shape by deed the confusion he felt inside.” At Swim, Two Boys gave me, not a vocabulary for what I was, but a way to think about myself. MacMurrough tells this Doyler directly, when Doyler asks him what he believes: “The world would say that we did not exist, that only our actions, our habits, were real, which the world called our crimes or our sins. But [my friend] began to think that we did indeed exist. That we had a nature our own, which was not another’s perverted or turned to sin. Our actions could not be crimes, he believed, because they were the expression of a nature, of an existence even.”

Perhaps it’s unthinkable to you that anyone could not believe this about being gay. In moments of incredulous reflection of our enemies—I’m looking at you, Rick Santorum—I might be tempted, now anyway, to agree. I said already it’s hard for me to account for.

Yet the greatest gift of At Swim, Two Boys was purely mimetic, what the poet, Anne Carson, might call “the true mistakes of metaphor.” When MacMurrough, watching the boys swimming in the Forty Foot below, begs the ghost of his dead friend for help—for any way to show these boys who they are—he is told simply: “Help these boys build a nation their own,” what MacMurrough eventually calls “a nation of the heart.” He is told to:

“Ransack the histories for clues to their past. Plunder the literatures for words they can speak. And should you encounter an ancient tribe whose customs, however dimly, cast light on their hearts, tell them that tale; and you shall name the unspeakable names of your kind, and in that naming, in each such telling, they will falter a step to the light.”

When, bored, waiting in a bookstore in Harrow for my missionary companion to pick out some sundry gifts to send home, browsing the spines of titles, each and every, my eyes fell on Jamie O’Neill’s book. I recognized something in the boys, side by side on the cover, their naked shoulders facing the sea in front of them; I felt a kinship I couldn’t describe, looking over their shoulders and out beyond with them. I heard echoes of my own struggle in the title—and perhaps an inkling of a future that, with the right histories and literatures discovered, I might falter toward.

At Swim, Two Boys is the novel that named me and spoke me to myself. When I knew it and could speak it, I found a kind of calm assuredness nestled inside me, where before much was foreign. It was pride, unadorned, neither showy nor loud as an LGBT June—though, goddamnit, that has its place, too. But it was there in that book. And as O’Neill says through the novel’s ghost: “With pride, all things follow.”

Stay Backwords,

Matthew D. Kulisch

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