Beatlebone by Kevin Barry Review

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<i>Beatlebone</i> by Kevin Barry Review

It is 1978 and John Lennon lives a simple and outwardly happy life. He’s on a macrobiotic diet that doesn’t include booze, junk or blow, but still, no songs are calling to him. He’s been “coming loose of himself for months,” haunted by his past and set on edge by the coming summer. He’s discombobulated, lost in surges of anger, remorse, anxiety and isolation. ?

So Lennon sets out as if by fate, leaving his posh New York home, secretly bound for a tiny island he owns off the western coast of Ireland. All this fictional John Lennon wants is to spend three days on his uninhabited island, alone, screaming.

“This is the story of his strangest trip,” Irish novelist Kevin Barry writes, leaping from the odd-but-true fact of Lennon’s island ownership into a delightfully imaginative story about the former Beatle embarking on a frantic, soul-searching trip.

Adopting one of the world’s most celebrated musicians as a character all his own, Barry introduces his imagined Lennon in the midst of an edgy and irrational escape. Lennon’s journey is arranged with the help of a driver, an Irishman by the name of Cornelius O’Grady.

The novel unfolds as a myth about an already mythologized rock star, verging from the not-quite-possible air of a folk tale into moments of psychedelic wonder and magical realism. Barry livens the narrative with moments of sly humor—Lennon befriending an old, fat dog and immediately naming it Brian Wilson—and his descriptions of the Irish landscape range from exquisitely beautiful to disturbing and foreboding.

Barry’s prose is at once dreamy and direct, ethereal and grounded. His sentences tend toward the quick and powerful, but the subject matter can remain an enticing mystery. Barry’s descriptive language keeps a pleasurable distance from the norm. The first glimpse at one character refers to his “tiny yellowish pisshole-in-the-snow-type eyes.” Ireland itself is haunted, spirits calling from “beneath the skin of the earth.”

With pressmen chasing rumors of Lennon’s arrival in Ireland, O’Grady guides Lennon through a series of hideouts each more bizarre than the last. At the rustic O’Grady family farmhouse, high in the hills, Lennon dons the suit of his driver’s late father. The pair then skip away to the Highwood, drinking the night away and listening to music at a not-of-this-world country pub. The next stop is the now-closed Amethyst Hotel, where Sweet Joe and a young English couple lead Lennon through “the rants,” a therapy they promise to be more advanced than Lennon’s primitive screaming.

This screaming—or Screaming—is an actual therapy Lennon underwent in California in the care of psychologist Arthur Janov. “It’s a technique for getting at buried pain and childhood trauma,” Barry’s imagined Lennon says.

Before Lennon reaches his island, Barry puts the narrative on pause with what amounts to a chapter-length footnote covering Lennon’s purchase of of the island, the two years an idealistic band of hippies lived there and the author’s own travels to the island. A thoroughly enjoyable essay on its own, it’s nonetheless odd to encounter it in the middle of the novel rather than as a separate entity.

When Cornelius and Lennon come at last to the island, the press has indeed managed to track them there. The story then jumps to events taking place after the island visit—without revealing what really happened once Lennon set foot on the scrap of land—when he is attempting to record the music he conceived on the trip, his. To the sound engineer, the efforts “sound like a cat having an incident” and he’s already endured six weeks of recording, each 12-hour run ending with nothing but a “squall of broken notes to show for it.” The lost project is augmented by a pages-long “transcription” of Lennon rambling more about his past than the island.

“You never get past what happens to you when you’re seventeen,” this over-the-hill Lennon says, creatively blocked and anxiety-riddled. So in his longing, Lennon forces time to spin back on itself, forces his mind back to the time before suffering his greatest loss.

In the end, he concludes, “The examined life turns out to be a pain in the stones. The only escape from yourself is to scream and fuck and make and do.”

It’s a peculiar story, one about losing yourself to find yourself, going outward to facilitate going inward, about a man battered to battiness by the simultaneous urges for the opposite actions of abandonment and embrace. In the novel’s more philosophical moments (particularly in the fatalistic pronouncements of a talking seal), the fictional Lennon improbably enough emerges as a sort of everyman, stuck in his own tangled mess of universal fears.

In both story and tone, Barry has a clear gift for mischief. As a piece of fiction, Beatlebone wouldn’t work with a purely conjured protagonist. But by forcing this larger-than-life man into this plot of funhouse mirrors, Barry achieves the improbable, distorting the well-known Lennon into this mad, island-bound searcher.

Outwardly, Barry frames his novel as a journey narrative, but his true intent is to drill inward. With an ever-intriguing lyrical voice, he carefully peels Lennon’s psyche to its core. This escape was never truly about any destination, as Lennon admits at last: “Turns out the thought of it is the thing. The reality is slippery rocks and freezing fucking sea and creamy fucking gull shit.”

For all the imagination and careful research Barry brings to his fanciful Lennon story, it’s never particularly easy to see Lennon as purely Lennon. In Barry’s surreal narrative, the character is drawn more allegorically than realistically. This is a man of legend or myth, not the Lennon of “Imagine” or “Instant Karma” or even “Mother.” But for missing its hook, the novel could center on an entirely fictional character, without missing a beat(le).