The Short Version: It’s 1978 and John Lennon has fled the peaceful torpor of his New York life to find the island he bought years earlier, off the western coast of Ireland. But getting to the island is a little more difficult than he planned and so, accompanied by a deeply Irish driver, he finds himself on a dark, comic, existential wander through space, time, and Clew Bay.
The Review: There is no one else quite like Kevin Barry in the world today. His writing, be it in his short stories or his novels, is somehow a living, breathing thing. Picture in your mind a landscape of green and brown and blue; the way the grass moves, the feel of the breeze, the sense of the world alive around you. This is how Barry’s writing strikes the reader. We often talk of authors whose prose has energy, electricity, and so on – but Barry’s prose is alive in the way that nature is alive.
It helps, too, that he is an immensely gifted storyteller. I’ve seen him read and I made the distinction then: he is not reading, he is telling a story. There is something mischievous about him, a sense not of performance in the traditional sense but rather something elemental and dare-I-say magical. Storytelling at its most fundamental (and, as such, most powerful).
Take an early moment in the novel, for example, the sort of moment that ought to hook a reader not only into this particular yarn but into Barry’s writing in general. Lennon turns up in a small town and sits, with a dog, on the street as the morning rises over the town. He talks humorously with the dog and with several townspeople before heading to a hotel, where the hatchet-faced matron of the place gives him a hard time – and Lennon, in fine form, banters back with her like he was 21 again and on an early Beatles press tour. You know the clips, of the boys just being goofy not for any reason other than that goofy was how they wanted to be. When she asks him if he has a reservation, he responds: “I have severe ones, but I do need a room.” You can almost hear Barry himself chuckling, not in a full-of-himself kind of way but in the more elemental sense of delight that comes from telling a good tale.
This glint of mischief and this magical ability to spin a yarn are important to mention and tout because, it must be said, it takes some balls to write a novel about John Lennon. Not just a novel, mind you, but to fictionalize a moment and a mind and a sound – to conjure up a lost recording from nothing and make it feel like it could very well be out there somewhere… It is a bold claim to stake, for there are few figures who loom larger in popular culture than John Lennon. I myself am more a fan of McCartney and Harrison’s post-Beatles output… but it is Lennon the individual who is the most interesting of the four, as a human being. And Kevin Barry somehow captures his spirit on the page, the spirit of a man who seemed to encompass more things than the rest of us, whose restless internal struggle was unfathomable to mere mortals.
“He sets out for the place as an animal might, as though on some fated migration,” begins the novel and that animalistic urge – the sense of movement based on instinct or fate – never fades away. We see John not as the deity but as the man, just a man, complete with insecurities and doubts and some deep-seated psychological issues indeed. At a moment just past the halfway point, the word “deathhauntedness” appears and one can’t help but think about the timing: it’s May 1978 and Lennon has just over two years left on the planet. And there is the sense that Lennon has always been a little more serious than, say, his three musical companions – that he took life, itself, a little more seriously. A somberness, a melancholy you might call it. And Barry somehow makes it seem real, as though we’re actually hearing from Lennon himself.
This isn’t the only magic at hand, of course. There is lots of conversation throughout the novel about the energy of places, the psychic history and potency of them. A field brings out a happiness in Lennon while an easterly wind drives characters to dark, bleak places. Perhaps it is the locale, the wildness of the Irish coast where civilization leans into the abyss of the Atlantic – or perhaps it’s just authorial invention. But I’ve been to enough places in the world that feel somehow resonant that I believe Barry is simply capturing something inexplicable about the world, something “fantastical” indeed.
The sense of the author in the text is compounded and confounded when, quite suddenly, we’re thrown out of the story (1978, the Irish coast, John Lennon and his driver Cornelius) and given a glimpse into the author in 2011/2012 as he begins to work on this novel. In the turn of a page, we arrive in November 2011 and are across the street from the Dakota. We see Barry travel through the same sites that Lennon does in Western Ireland, even landing on Dorninish (Lennon’s island) and breaking into the old Amethyst Hotel. It is a strange, although not unwelcome, intrusion – stranger for its coming in the midst of the narrative instead of as a fore-or-afterword. But when Barry writes of the time slip phenomenon in Liverpool, on Bold Street, we discover the context: this whole novel is a sort of time slip. The Kevin Barry writing it and the reader consuming it are stepping through a rip in space-time back to a moment that could’ve been, maybe was, probably wasn’t… but despite being fiction, this glimpse of (possible) memoir/non-fiction makes the whole thing seem all the more possible, all the more real.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. What if John did disappear out to his island? He was wont to strike out on his own in those days, to find solace in anonymity as he approached middle-age with a great big writer’s block around his neck. What if, in a moldering pile of old film, we could glimpse him pushing the camera away? “Was that John Lennon?!” someone might ask and someone else would say, “What, are you daft?” and it would be forgotten all over again. What if the beatlebone record existed, or nearly existed? The magic of Barry’s novel is that it convinces you all of these things might be true. With tremendous wit and even more exceptional heart (and not a little magic, both authorial and literal), he’s turned a legend into a man again – something I think Mr. Lennon might appreciate, wherever he is now.
And if you’re not reading Kevin Barry, you’re making a grave mistake. He is, I think it’s safe to say, my favorite author writing today – and Beatlebone proves that he’s no fluke. He’s unlike anybody else and we’re lucky to have him.