Fiction – hardcover; Canongate Books; 272 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone is my book of the year. It’s a riotous romp full of the most unexpected surprises and captivated me from start to finish.
It tells the story of a 37-year-old man named John, who is going through a kind of personal crisis. He wants to spend some much-needed time alone to contemplate his past and figure out his next move. He owns an uninhabited island off the west coast of Ireland, which he’s never visited before, so he decides to spend three days there — alone.
The trouble is, John is no ordinary man — and this is no ordinary adventure. His last name is Lennon, he’s originally from Liverpool and he now lives in New York with his wife and young son. It’s 1978 and he’s petrified that his new-found domestic bliss has stifled — and possibly killed — any shred of artistic creativity he had left after his hey day with the Beatles and his early success as a solo artist.
He is so tired. He hasn’t slept a wink. He has tried so hard this long while to be at home in the world. Baking the bread. Swinging in a papoose the baby. Cozy-as-the-fucking-womb stuff. Captain fucking Domestic. Doing all the voices. Doing down the days. But his mind will go to other places. He cannot hold the moment. It is the moment itself that contains all the riches. Maybe on his own island he will finally learn to hold the moment. He needs to get to his own island. He has been drawn here again for a reason.
Going to the island is his last chance saloon, except getting there is no easy matter, not simply because it’s remote but because he doesn’t want the press to follow — and publicise — this very private adventure.
What follows is an extraordinary road trip involving an eccentric Irish taxi driver/tour guide, primal scream therapy, a bunch of hippies and a bleak and windy coastal landscape. But this is not just a physical journey — albeit one with Samuel Beckett’s absurdist overtones — but a wild journey into John’s troubled psyche.
It’s funny and sad and wise and clever, and always — always — startling.
An experimental novel
Perhaps the most surprising thing about this book is the experimental nature of it, because mid-way through the compelling, gorgeously written narrative, the author inserts himself into the story and gives us an entire chapter about how the real John Lennon bought the island of Dorinish in 1967 for £1,550 sterling. He then explains his own nightmarish journey to trace Lennon’s footsteps by visiting the island for research purposes. This shouldn’t work — inserting reportage into a fictional account of someone’s life — but in Barry’s hands it practically sings. And it also informs the made up, slightly surreal elements of the story, making them seem more real, more plausible.
There are a couple of chapters that read like mini plays, complete with stage directions, including one in which John stays in a decrepit hotel and another where he recalls laying down some music in a recording studio during his drug-filled days. As odd as this might sound, these do not feel clunky nor do they detract from the overall story arc: if anything they add to it.
The most wonderful thing about Beatlebone, however, is the prose, which is rich and lush and oh-so evocative. How’s this for a description of New York, for instance:
Sometimes he’ll walk the streets on the biblical afternoons when a great downpour hits the avenues and it rains frogs and cats and dogs and the people all become strange twisted birds in the hot wind from the tunnels and get sucked down the black maws of the subways and the taxi cabs move through the yellow blur and vapours of the streets and the rain washes the colours of the streets and smears them and he comes down from his eyrie and walks the streets for a while and he is that happy in his old raincoat with the fisherman’s hat pulled down over his eyes…
But for all its focus on this one particular Beatle, this is not a book about the Beatles — you don’t need to know a thing about John Lennon to enjoy it, though I suspect it certainly helps if you know some of his background (the fact he was raised by his aunt, because his mother was too troubled to look after him, for instance) and his quirks (such as his obsession with the number 9). I suspect this novel resonated with me because John is, in fact, my favourite Beatle and I spent most of my teens and early 20s reading anything and everything about him. Seeing him brought to life in this book — a jumble of emotional and psychological contradictions in which he’s sometimes joyful, heartbroken, melancholy, angry, belligerent, arrogant or quietly lacking in confidence — was quite mesmerising. Barry has clearly done his research and captured something of the essence of the man.
But this could be a story about any man who is going through a mid-life crisis — and perhaps that’s why it works so well, because as crazy as John seems in these pages we all go through periods of self-doubt and uncertainty in our lives. We just don’t have an elusive Irish island to escape to…
Beatlebone was shortlisted for Novel of the Year at the 2015 Irish Book Awards and was named the (very worthy) winner of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize.