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Nov 14

Book Review: Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

Bottom Line:

An experimental, heartfelt, passionate novel about that time when John Lennon went to visit his island just to get away from it all.

Representative Paragraph:

John Lennon deconstructs himself

JOHN: Do you really want to know what I am? Do you? Well I’ll tell you exactly what I fucking am. I’m fucking anxiety. And I’m fucking lust. And I’m a fucking booze hound and I’m a fucking dope fiend or I was and I’m a fucking sad Scouse sentimental bastard and I’m the most competitive prick on the face of the planet actually and I’m a jealous greedy black-hearted English cunt full of bitterness and fucking poison and fucking rage and I’m the sweetest fucking angel, too, while we’re fucking here and while we’re fucking at it or at least sometimes I am and that is who I fucking am and that is what I fucking am and yeah I miss me dead fucking mam and yeah I want to piss on me dead fucking dad’s fucking bones coz he didn’t fuck her enough and he didn’t make her fucking happy and you know what that makes me?

A delighted silence – three breaths are held.

JOHN: It makes me fucking special fucking no-how!

Commentary

Beatles’ fans aside, I doubt the average person knows that in 1967 John Lennon bought an island, named Dorinish, off the west coast of Ireland.  I certainly didn’t.  Kevin Barry, though, uses this neat little factoid as the basis of his second novel, Beatlebone.

Set in 1978, a beleaguered John Lennon decides to visit his island to get away from it all.  Hounded by the media, Lennon relies on the locals to not only find Dorinish but also protect him from the public eye.  But due to inclement weather and the ever encroaching media, Lennon’s guide, the mysterious Cornelius O’Grady, takes John to Achill Island and the Amethyst Hotel, a home for devotees of Primal Scream therapy.  It’s there that John begins to confront some of the demons that drew him back to Clew Bay and his island in the first place.

In his author’s note – that runs for about thirty pages and features, abruptly, two-thirds of the way through the narrative, because it’s that sort of novel – Kevin Barry states that:

Fictional and biographical treatments of John Lennon have tended either towards hagiography or character assassination, and I felt the wisest practice was not to do any traditional research among the texts.

While I can’t vouch for Barry’s assessment of how Lennon has been treated in the past by other writers, I doubt even those versed with the minutiae of his life will have come across anything as different and strange as Kevin Barry’s unpeeling of John Lennon’s psyche during this period of his life.  By setting the story in 1978, Barry can both explore Lennon’s childhood and the deep-seated feelings he has toward his parents – and what a fucked up relationship that was – while also investigating Lennon’s desire to once again be creative (in 1975 Lennon retired from the music industry to look after his son Sean.  He comes out of retirement in October 1980 only to be assassinated two months later).

While there’s a clear experimental bent to the novel’s plot and structure, Barry doesn’t short change us when it comes to the prose.  Like Lennon, the language is a lovely mix of contradictions, raw and violent – the word “fuck” appears so often it  becomes another verb or adjective – coupled with a lovely turn of phrase.  This is typified by the following paragraph —

The first of the morning comes across the trees. The lake hardens with new light. He wakes to a head throb – it hurts even to think. He cannot place himself, quite. It hurts especially to fucking think. He lies on his belly on the smooth stones by the edge of the lake. He feels great age down the reptile length of himself. He lies still and cold and listens to the water of the lake as it moves. He retches again. He has a pinhole in the centre of his forehead and all of the world’s pain screams through. He is sweating fucking bullets. A flicker comes from the night at last. He turns painfully onto his back and sits – he sees the empty boarded pub, a grave jury of trees, the morning patrol of skinhead crows. Accusation in the yellow of their pin-bright eyes; he retches. Accusation in the black gloss of their coats; he retches. The night in flitters and rags comes back to him; he groans. Arrows of light are flung through the pines. He hears nearby a deep bovine suffering. He turns to find the van with its side door halfways open and a pair of boots stuck out at odd angles. He goes on his fours across the stones. He retches as he crawls and by slow evolution of the species at length brings himself to an upright stance and walks. He sets one monkey foot in front of the other until the van is reached. He pokes his head in back to find Cornelius red-eyed, purple-faced and lowing.

— I just adore how an evocative image like “the night in glitters and rags comes back to him”, can exist side by side with Lennon’s constant need to retch as he recovers from a brutal hangover.

Barry’s decision to interrupt the narrative with an extended author’s note might be seen as some as indulgent, pretentious and all that’s wrong with literary fiction.  But Barry’s journey to write Beatlebone, which included visiting the real Amethyst Hotel, dilapidated and possibly haunted, and confronting a fear of isolation and loneliness, reflects the novels exploration of creativity and the darkness and fear and pain that inspires great art.

Beatlebone may not be a love letter to John Lennon, but as a portrait of an artist and the creative process it gives us a unique insight into his psychology.  It’s not sentimental, nor is it cynical and nihilistic.  But it is original and genuine and utterly compelling.

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