Beatlebone is an account of a journey, a psychedelic odyssey, its protagonist — at times its narrator — John Lennon, seen through the prism of Kevin Barry’s imagining. Barry’s first novel, The City of Bohane, was a dystopian nightmare of comic vernacular and violence, showered with praise and prizes. Think James Joyce and Flann O’Brien collaborating on a script for Tarantino. Beatlebone, his second novel (on the shortlist for the Goldsmiths prize for fiction) has Lennon fleeing New York in 1978 for a secret visit to Dorinish, the uninhabited island he bought 11 years earlier. Burned-out, creatively blocked, he craves a few days of solitude, to sit and stare at the surf. And scream. (In 1970 Lennon and Yoko took a course of Californian Primal Scream therapy. And he did buy the island.) Throughout the book, the fictional and the documented lives intermingle.
We first encounter Lennon in the back of an old Mercedes, bumping his way to the west coast of Ireland, driven by Cornelius O’Grady, an amiable but ambiguous cicerone, feeding Lennon’s paranoia with hints that the dreaded press could be on their trail. Barry captures the deadpan Scouser tone: arriving at a grim hotel, Lennon greets a hatchet-faced crone in reception:
It’s about a room, love.
She throws an eye up at the clock.
Do you have a reservation? she says.
I have severe ones, he says, but I do need a room.
Swinging between past and present as he dreams of his island, Lennon recalls old loves and losses, mourns the father who came and went, and Julia, the mother he lost twice — once when she abandoned him, again when she was killed in an accident. Time here is mutable.
Cornelius specialises in delaying tactics: to escape the newsmen from Dublin who may (or may not) be on their trail, he draws Lennon into detours and distractions — a stopover at the O’Grady dwelling, an incognito uproarious all-nighter at a remote pub, a visit to the (real-life) Amethyst Hotel where Lennon is subjected to an abusive Primal Scream session run by a sadistic ex-hippie. Clinging to his sanity, Lennon does a runner, and spends a solitary night in a seashore cave, consumed with ‘deathhauntedness’ and visions of the perfect album. At which point the narrative abruptly swerves into formal biography/autobiography, as the author retraces his steps towards the book we’re reading; steeping himself in Beatles memorabilia, and finally making the journey Lennon will make in the novel, and barely surviving.
Is any of this (which could be a back-of-book author’s note) true? Or is it part of the intricate dreamwork Barry is constructing? A dazzling stylist, he claims he wants to create something ‘pure, plain as glass’. Asking a lot of a man who, as he says, ‘never knowingly underfed an adjective’. We leave Lennon at work on a doomed, mythical album, losing himself in a five-page soliloquy that ends on a note of quiet resignation rather than Molly Bloom ecstasy. Real life awaits him.
Mingling surreal black humour and breakdown, Beatlebone is a wild cascade of language and imagery, rich in wordplay and referential resonance. Beneath the glittering surface Barry is giving us a vanitas on fame and celebrity. Remember the date is 1978. The real-life endgame will be played out very soon.