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.”