New York, NY: Doubleday, 2015. 320 pages. $24.95.
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In 1978, John Lennon hadn’t released any music for three years. His last outing had been 1975’s comparatively uninspiring Rock ’n’ Roll, and in the year before he’d openly announced his retirement from music, citing his desire to concentrate on the upbringing of the newborn Sean Lennon as the primary element in his decision.
Yet, if Irish author Kevin Barry is to be trusted, Lennon’s urge to resuscitate his fading genius still lingered. That’s why he absconded from his Dakota apartment to set off in search of the island he’d purchased eleven years prior to 1978, a wind-cracked islet falling somewhere off the west coast of Ireland. As Barry’s second novel has it, the musician was low on ideas and motivation, so he pinned his hopes on the insular enclave whose unadulterated purity might possibly re-tap the unadulterated purity that had been mired by years of celebrity and distorted attention.
In other words, Beatlebone is about one person’s quest for the innocence, authenticity, and peace that has been sullied by his hectic adult life. Barry doesn’t provide too many explicit snapshots of what exactly has made this life so troubled, but it’s all implicitly there in the surrealistic, fractured prose that describes Lennon as he touches down in Ireland and meets up with his half-mad “fixer,” Cornelius O’Grady. The stop-start paragraphs are always separated by a double space, and in their staccato fragmentation they paint a Lennon who’s similarly fragmented. In an early passage, the anonymous third-person narrator declares, “He’s been coming loose of himself since early in the spring. He knows all the signs of it. One minute he’s lost in the past and the next he’s shot back to the now. There is no future in it.”
Such portraiture is bold on the part of Barry, potentially opening the writer up to the charge of character assassination. Bolder still, he often sketches Lennon in unflattering colors, as a stressed-out thirty-seven-year-old inclined to hurl an expletive or two at the tirelessly eccentric O’Grady, such as when the Walrus barks, “I want to get to my fucking island.” Barry also occasionally portrays him as a sex-obsessed misanthrope, what with his recurring thoughts of “Cunt and prick” and his shouts of “Fucking Hatchet-Face” in reference to an aging female hotelier.
That said, there’s plenty of documented evidence to support Barry’s imagining of Lennon as someone prone to ugly outbursts. More importantly, the book avoids the traps of other uncomplimentary fictionalized memoirs by assuming a position that’s fundamentally sympathetic to Lennon. It empathizes with his “private woes and the weaving of his miseries,” with how eating a nostalgic breakfast pushes him “near to fucking tears again,” and how, in his castaway loneliness, “he wants her touch so badly,” this undisclosed “her” being either Yoko Ono or his departed mother.
There’s also the fact that the allusive, surrealistic, and dismembered format of Beatlebone saves it from having to say too much about its protagonist, a too much that would open itself up to reproof. Rather than inundate the reader with masses of factoids, assertions, and recollections concerning Lennon’s checkered past, it prefers to hazily weave together what was already common knowledge regarding the Beatle. It touches on his Californian experiments with scream therapy (“What about we do the rants, John?”), on the passing of his mother when he was seventeen (“. . . yeah I miss me dead fucking mam”), and on his slurring by the press (“They’ll call it another crack-up album”). However, in the context of the pursuit of his personal island, these references constitute a much-storied past that becomes something for him to overcome and escape, a mythic bad reputation that’s preventing him from being the simple “full-grown fucking man” he knows himself to be.
Aiding him in this escape is Ireland itself, which serves not only as a psychedelic if rainy backdrop to the novel, but also as a symbol of the origins and self-truth Lennon is aiming to rediscover with his sojourn. That he chose to buy land in the Emerald Isle should come as little surprise, considering that his great-grandfather was Irish born and bred, and how he remained interested enough in his ancestral homeland to protest against the Bloody Sunday massacre on his Some Time in New York City album from 1972. It’s therefore not outlandish for Barry to propose that the island nation held considerable significance for his sense of identity and self, and that he would seek a return to its craggy bosom in times of stress and disillusionment. Its “warm earth” and “the soft rich cake” of its soil “is everything that he needs,” a figurative store of the “warmth” and “soft richness” that has been drained from his own “sentimental Scouse” soul by an alienating superstardom. Barry draws these features of its landscape in such a living, breathing way as to suggest that what he’s truly drawing are the underlying, undomesticated features of Lennon himself. He writes impressionistically of the “aching sound deep down in the rocks” that just might be the singer’s own aching, and during one episode in a sea-dampened grotto, he writes of how the “vaulted eaves of the cave contain all that’s left of him.” Even without these more overt representations of Lennon’s embodiment in the “raw grey light” and “granite tops” of Ireland, the novel consistently provokes the suspicion that the singer is taking a foggy tour, not so much through his “old country,” but through his own self, as elusive as this often proves.
The reason why it proves so slippery is that, as Beatlebone discloses in later chapters, the notion of an unspoiled island on which Lennon could enjoy unstained peace is a fantasy. For instance, whenever he finds himself alone amid virgin nature he reflects on how he “wants to be home now and away from this cold place.” Similarly, he makes the occasional reference, as noted above, to how he’s “fully fucking grown,” to how he no longer needs “to yodel on about me dead fucking mam” and how, despite its pain and difficulties, he just wants to “get on with [his] life now.” This eventually proves to be his way of coming to terms with his fame and of recognizing that, regardless of every “dark turn” furrowed by his thoughts and feelings, his turbulent past and his unsettled present are exactly what makes him who he is. Without his “fucking anxiety” and his “fucking rage,” he would be a blank slate, as nondescript, unremarkable, and faceless as “nineteen acres of rocks and bloody rabbit holes.”
So, in the end, things do and do not quite finish as Lennon had planned. It would be unfair to divulge what exactly this means and how exactly Beatlebone concludes, but suffice it to say Kevin Barry has produced a multi-layered, highly comic novel that’s every bit as intricate, eccentric and satisfying as his debut, City of Bohane. It may not reveal the secret of its hero, but then again, its central motif is that its hero didn’t have a secret as such. He was just a “fully grown man,” someone whose day-to-day hang-ups and hiccups are more representative of us flawed mortals than any fabled persona ever could be.