Author: Kevin Barry
Publisher: Canongate Books
Price: $13.00 (Paper)
American readers are aware of the Irish reverence for their poets. The recently deceased Seamus Heaney is a kind of secular saint.
Americans are less aware of the large gathering of first-rate Irish fiction writers. Occasionally, a writer makes it across the Atlantic , perhaps because a novel has been partly set in the U.S., like Colm Toibin’s “Brooklyn” (2009) and “The Master” (2004), an imagined life of Henry James, or “Transatlantic” (20 13) by Colum McCann.
The work of Kevin Barry is still little known in the U.S. but I am sure not for long.
Barry is a writer of wicked wit and high energy. Fearless, no subject is off limits and his characters sometimes use profanity that would make the proverbial sailor blush.
So far, Barry has published two collections of stories, “There Are Little Kingdoms” and “Dark Lies the Island.” The recent collection includes a touching story of a young man and woman, sitting together on a rooftop in Cork, he too shy to hold her hand, and a shocker in which two ladies in their sixties calmly go hunting for a child to kidnap and probably torture. There are also two novels, “City of Bohane,” post-apocalyptic, a dystopia, and the most recent, “Beatlebone,” winner of the 2015 Goldsmiths Prize.
The protagonist of “Beatlebone” is John Lennon. THE John Lennon. The year is 1978 and Lennon is enduring a very rough patch. Blocked, unable to write or compose, unhappy, depressed to the point of suicide, he is trying to get to a tiny island, Dorinish, one of hundreds in Clews Bay, off the west coast of Ireland. The real Lennon, who had West Ireland grandparents, had bought the island on a whim in 1967 and been there twice, for a couple of hours each time, in ’67 and ’68.
We learn this in a 27-page interruption starting at page 175 of the novel, in which Barry tells of his own obsession with Lennon, his visit to the Dakota in Manhattan and bicycling around Clews Bay. This section looks like non-fiction and probably is. But who knows for sure?
At any rate, the fictional Lennon in 1978 wants to be dropped off and left for three days, alone, to meditate.
This must be done in secret as he is hounded like a fox by newspapermen and photographers.
Lennon has as his guide a strange local named Cornelius O’Grady who serves first as chauffeur in a Mercedes, then hides Lennon in his house, then finally takes him out by boat.
John and Cornelius talk a great deal, much of it very funny. John recalls that three times he has been asked to be on the Muppet Show. He has refused.
Cornelius says “I suppose they had Elton John on the other week.”
The conversation continues:
“No surprise there.
He was superb, John.
I think you should go on, John.
What harm in it?
It might take you out of yourself.
I suppose it might.”
During their Odyssey, a spiritual as well as literal journey which takes several days, Cornelius and Lennon stay in the eerie, nearly abandoned Amethyst Hotel with a tiny cult: a young couple, Frank and Sue, and their tyrant guru, Director Joe.
This long scene is chilling as the three are devoted to cleansing their spirits through Primal Scream, to which is added sex therapy, ranting, vicious personal attacks and some physical violence. Lennon comes through. In fact he had practiced Primal Scream therapy in California under Dr. Arthur Janov in the 60s to “free the subject from the buried pain of childhood trauma.”
In other, humorous, less intense scenes, Lennon converses with a seal in a seaside cave; the seal has “sad, doleful eyes,” “a fat stern head …like a bouncer” and to Lennon’s astonishment a “scouse” accent; that is a Merseyside, Liverpool, accent.
During another evening, Cornelius and John, disguised in an old suit with his hair slicked back as O’Grady’s English cousin Kenneth who doesn’t talk much because of a “brutal speech impediment,” get drunk in a County Mayo pub. John, who has mostly given up drink and drugs, forgets himself and sings. Ears perk up.
The countryside, as Yeats had insisted, is haunted. Cornelius explains: sometimes the cattle are wind-bothered, “unseated,” “in the mind.”Cornelius says, “do you realize you’re looking at a man who’s seen a cow step in front of a moving vehicle? Purposefully.”
Staying in O’Grady’s house, John is fed large helpings of black pudding, mostly blood, when he has been macrobiotic for years. “He eats the food. The spiciness, the mealiness, the animal waft—it’s all there in the history of his mouth, and he is near to … tears again,” reminded of his childhood.
In “Beatlebone” Barry brings the fictional Lennon back to himself, the ordeals perhaps restoring his creative powers. In any case, the reader is better off. This is a romp, an adventure. The prose is wild, acrobatic, obscene, beautiful. There is nothing else like it.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.