A wildly comic send-up of Irish literature and culture, At Swim-Two-Birds is the story of a young, lazy, and frequently drunk Irish college student who lives with his curmudgeonly uncle in Dublin. When not in bed (where he seems to spend most of his time) or reading he is composing a mischief-filled novel about Dermot Trellis, a second-rate author whose characters ultimately rebel against him and seek vengeance. From drugging him as he sleeps to dropping the ceiling on his head, these figures of Irish myth make Trellis pay dearly for his bad writing. Hilariously funny and inventive, At Swim-Two-Birds has influenced generations of writers, opening up new possibilities for what can be done in fiction. It is a true masterpiece of Irish literature.
O'Brien labored mightily to make At Swim-Two-Birds summary-proof. But here, anyway, are the bare bones: the narrator, a university student, is writing a novel, which keeps morphing from mock-heroics to middlebrow naturalism. Meanwhile, one of his characters, Dermot Trellis, is himself writing a Western--an Irish Western--whose cowpunching protagonists will eventually throw off their fictional shackles and attempt to murder their creator. (Talk about the death of the author!) There's enough structural shenanigans here to keep an entire industry of critics afloat. Still, what matters most is the pungency of O'Brien's prose. His dialogue is agreeably grungy, his parodies delicious, and the narrator speaks in the sort of Jesuitical dialect that we associate with Samuel Beckett:
That same afternoon I was sitting on a stool in an intoxicated condition in Grogan's licensed premises. Adjacent stools bore the forms of Brinsley and Kelly, my two true friends. The three of us were occupied in putting glasses of stout into the interior of our bodies and expressing by fine disputation the resulting sense of physical and mental well-being. In my thigh pocket I had eleven and eightpence in a weighty pendulum of mixed coins.Snippets, alas, do little justice to At Swim-Two-Birds, which relies heavily on cumulative chaos for its effect. Graham Greene, an early fan, compared its comic charge to "the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage." A half century after its initial appearance, O'Brien's masterpiece remains a gleeful read--a marvelous, inventive, and (last but not least) really funny book. --James Marcus