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Stroke of luck 

Jamie O'Neill doesn't take too kindly to being called a celebrity. Never mind that his book, At Swim, Two Boys, netted one of the largest advances ever paid to an Irish author for a debut novel, and the resulting fanfare has been nothing less than glowing. O'Neill takes his newfound fame in stride.

"Where I live, in Galway in the west of Ireland, you can't hardly spit in the street without hitting somebody famous for something," he says. He tells the story of meeting a neighbor who turned out to be a plumber. "Not an artist or a poet or an actor, but a plumber. Somebody useful for a change."

His admiration for the working class shines through in At Swim, published in March in paperback by Scribner. The book reveals the Irish uprising of 1916 through the eyes of two young Dubliners: Jim Mack, the son of a doddering shopkeeper, and Doyler Doyle, a lower-class laborer with ideas of revolution. In language both graceful and immersed in idiom, the author masterfully creates a vision of Ireland that puts Frank McCourt to shame.

O'Neill spent 10 years writing the novel, typing in his spare time while working as a night receptionist for a hospital. His story brings to mind Atlanta author Jim Grimsley, another gay writer who held a hospital job for years before publishing his first novel. O'Neill welcomes the comparison.

"Anything would be a relief after the Irish greats that are usually trooped out," he says. "Being compared to James Joyce is like arguing with God: You just can't win. I think in the end, no writer wants to be the new anyone. I'd be happy to be the new Jamie O'Neill."

Jamie O'Neill reads and signs At Swim, Two Boys Feb. 24 at 7:30 p.m. at Outwrite Bookstore, 991 Piedmont Ave. 404-607-0082.

Phillip DePoy is celebrating the publication of his new novel with a uniquely theatrical event. The local author promises to read, sign books and even sing at a release party held for The Devil's Hearth. With his play, Easy, recently nominated for an Edgar Award, the most prestigious prize for mystery writers, no wonder DePoy has something to sing about. Feb. 24 at 8 p.m. Horizon Theatre, 1083 Austin Ave. 404-584-7450.

Shelf Space is a weekly column on books and Atlanta's literary scene.

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