Beatlebone by Kevin Barry
Imagine. It’s 1978, and John Lennon has left New York, left Yoko Ono and their young son Sean (to whom Lennon has been playing stay-at-home dad), and split for Ireland, “in its drizzle and murk,” for Dorinish, the island that he owns off the coast of County Mayo. To scream. Primally. This is Beatlebone, the story of John Lennon’s strangest trip.
All dreamy and lyrical in its telling, Beatlebone finds our hero a desperate man teetering on the brink of madness, stumbling away from his driver the night, lying the Irish mud, listening “for a song beneath the skin of the earth. Seeing as he cannot fucking find one elsewhere.”
John has no songs. But he has a solution. He must get to Dorinish, the island he purchased nine years ago. En route, he meets a hound that he calls “Brian Wilson,” and he sings with him. John is full of wit, even jokes. When asked by the innkeeper of a run-down hotel if he has a reservation, he replies “I have severe ones, but I do need a room.”
John’s lost his words. “What’s the fucking word?” he asks himself over and over. Scabrous, sentinel, woebegone, crepuscular… His unhinged demeanor is nicely offset in the steady charactor of Cornelius O’Grady, his protector, sidekick, and driver, who ferries him across the Irish landscape in a van that “smells of the other Monday’s fish.”
Western Ireland springs from the page in Barry’s sentences. “The river is a rush of voices over its ruts and tunnels into the soft black flesh of the night,” and “seabirds hover watchfully with their mad eyes, all wingspan and homicide.” Barry’s lyricism couples with his mastery of the vernacular (“He arranges a fag in the corner of the gob for a spiv’s face, a nylon-dealer’s – he has a Second War face,”) to wrap the reader in a pleasing Irish reverie. And then he breaks the spell.
A new narrator emerges two thirds of the way into Beatlebone. It’s Barry himself, and he’s divulging to us his inspiration and research for the novel. He provides historical background on the 1967 auction of the island of Dorinish and John Lennon’s purchase of it “at the knockdown price of £1,550 sterling.” He discusses the nature of primal scream therapy, the origins of the Atlantis Community in County Donegal, and the experimental community that was established on Lennon’s island in 1971. Why Barry feels the need to step in and elucidate Beatlebone’s origins is unclear. Yes, it provides context for the story, but it also punches holes in the narrative’s fourth wall.
Barry’s departure concludes, and he returns to John and his quest for the island. A magical mystery tour of its own with more than a few easter eggs for Fab Four fans, Beatlebone is an utterly original novel with more than a little to say about the artist’s creative process, its depths and its heights.