Do you hear whispers from back there, Cornelius?
Ah I would do. Yes.
You mean from an old life?
Back arse of time, he says, and gestures grandly with a sweep of imperious paw.
For a long time, like many people, I was obsessed with The Beatles. I don’t think I listened to anything else between the ages of 12-15 or so. Although I always knew which album was my favourite (Rubber Soul, natch), I wasn’t so sure about my favourite Beatle. Ringo was impossible, Paul sympathetic but in the end too sweet, George the one I eventually decided upon but only because it seemed a more recherché choice than the one who was from the beginning my actual favourite, John. He was the smartest, the funniest, the prickliest, the most sarcastic, the one who deadpanned his responses to the press: “How do you find America?” “Turn left at Greenland.” I loved him because he wasn’t easy to love.
Thinking back on it now, I wonder if the reason he would come to have a hold on me was that the announcement of his death was one of the first world-historical, if I can put it that way, events I remember. I was eight, and a friend of our family, the father of my best friend in my young childhood, the girl who taught me English, in fact, or so goes the family lore anyway, came to our house, presumably to pick her up but oddly I have no memory of her being there. Instead I remember him coming solemnly into our kitchen with his omnipresent cigarette and telling us Lennon had been shot and my mother giving a gasp and even—could this be right, it seems a bit melodramatic—crying a little.
I’m telling you all this because I’m wondering if any of it unconsciously prompted my decision to read Beatlebone, the new novel from Irish writer Kevin Barry. It’s about a visit Lennon took in 1978 to the small Irish island he had bought on a whim in the 60s. The island, Dorinish, is real. And Lennon really bought it, in 1967 for £1550. Lennon visited the island a handful of times before turning it over to a group of hippies who lived on it in the early 70s.
The trip described in the novel is fictional, but the story is based on aspects of Lennon’s life from that time. Barry imagines that Lennon has slipped away from his new family and life in New York to visit the island and have a scream (Lennon & Yoko Ono had undergone primal therapy with its founder, Arthur Janov, in 1970) in the hopes of getting through a fallow creative period.
I still like the Beatles well enough, though I hardly ever listen to them anymore. It’s enough that they inspired so much of the pop music I came to love later in life. Maybe I’ll come back to them if my daughter discovers them for herself one day. I used to know a lot about them, as much as one could pre-internet. But I’m no Beatles expert and in general I’m turned off by intense fandom.
I think that made me an ideal reader of Beatlebone. The novel has a pleasingly oblique relationship to its protagonist. It’s sympathetic but not hagiographic. Barry’s Lennon seems plausible. I can imagine this Lennon as the real John Lennon, and for some reason that matters though I don’t know why. There’s something interesting about what Barry does that I can’t quite put my finger on. I was always shuttling back and forth between things I knew about Lennon and this character. On the one hand, this Lennon was simply the novel’s John and I took him on his own terms. But on the other I could never forget the historical John Lennon. I don’t do this with other historical novels, maybe because I don’t know anything about Henry VIII or Thomas Cromwell, say, other than what I know from Hilary Mantel.
Something about this book is licensed—though how I couldn’t say—by our sense of the historical John Lennon. Certainly the knowledge of his death hangs over the book, not least because Lennon feels himself, at 37, as old and maybe even a bit finished, although Barry fortunately does not have him imagining or foreshadowing his own death. Maybe the reason for the uncertainty I’m feeling but struggling with naming is that Barry’s Lennon is always so unsure about his own identity.
The novel is mostly composed in dialogue, with some interior monologue and almost no narrative exposition. Much of its success comes from this structure, since it avoids the clunky integration of facts that bogs down most historical fiction. John’s life as a Beatle is rarely referenced. A brief reference to the Cavern Club in Liverpool aside, John doesn’t flash back to some moment with the band in the studio or on tour. What matters is his present life—he’s become a New Yorker, a stay-at-home dad, a man unsure whether he has any music left in him—and the distant past: his childhood and adolescence in Liverpool, and, perhaps most importantly, the time before his birth when his parents first met.
In other words, Barry manages to keep the Beatles (almost) out of his book. And when they do appear it’s as a joke: at the end of his Irish sojourn, on a country road in County Mayo, John meets a 112-year-old woman. He’s introduced to her as Kenneth, the alias he’s been traveling under, but she sees through him:
Have you been on the television?
Maybe I have.
When you were younger, she says.
Well this is it.
I’d recognise the nose, she says. You’ve a bit of weight gone off you since?
I’ve gone macrobiotic now.
There were four of ye, she says.
The leader was a beautiful-looking boy, she says. The big eyes like saucers and the song about the blackbird.
As this passage suggests, the glory of this novel is its dialogue. I kept hearing bits of Beckett, which is perhaps just to say that I kept hearing Irishness. Indeed, the novel cares a lot about what the Situationists called psychogeography, the effect of geography on our emotions and behaviour. In the first scene, Lennon abandons his chauffeured car in the middle of the countryside and lies face down in the soft rich dirt before turning to watch the coming of dawn: “John lies saddled on the warm earth and he listens to its bones.” Bones are important to the novel. Bones are a source of meaning; in fact, they are a synonym for source, for ancestry. But bones are also remnants, signs of death and loss. Lennon’s father was Irish and Barry argues that Lennon was preoccupied with his Irish roots. But what John keeps thinking about while actually in Ireland is the way it calls up his hometown across the Irish Sea. He tastes the foods of his childhood—things he’s given up now that he’s “gone macrobiotic”—and hears hints of Scouse in the Irish accent.
The novel’s deepest and weirdest belief is that there are certain places where people can slip through time and enter the past. Lennon finds himself not just imagining but actually attending the scene of his parents’ courtship. Most startling is an admission Barry himself makes. About three-quarters of the way through the book he breaks from the story, incorporating a section about his process of writing of the book, which was premised on his desire “to spring a story from its places… from Dorinish itself—if I could figure out how to get there—and to be guided as purely as possible by the feelings that are trapped within these places, and by the feelings trapped within.” Places are like psyches—intense feelings are locked within each.
After a description of a notorious “time slip” on Bold Street in Liverpool—apparently dozens of people have reported being transported back to the street as it was in the 1950s—Barrry describes his own otherwordly vision in the near-deserted villages along the Irish coast. He saw a coven of women dressed in black materialize from thin air and wade through the waves, the mirror of a vision he has John remember having with Yoko the first time they visited Dorinish together.
I’m not sure this section is entirely successful: it has a whiff of the sub-Sebaldian, complete with studiously artless black and white photographs. But I do think the book’s commitment to irrational, out-of-body experiences is fascinating. One scene is representative of this tendency: on the way to Dorinish, John’s handler, Cornelius O’Grady, deposits him on Achill Island to wait out a storm. The island is deserted except for an ancient hotel named the Amethyst now inhabited only by a Svengali-like guru and an impressionable young couple who are careering through a perverse (aka satanic) version of something like Janov’s primal therapy. In the book’s most amazing scene the trio seeks to convince Lennon to take part in their ritual. They alternate between seduction and menace: the whole thing is hair-raisingly ominous, like something from some of the stranger sections of Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.
The guru and his followers are a more compelling but dangerous version of the journalists who have got wind of Lennon’s presence and are hunting him down. To escape these predators, Lennon strikes out alone on the island and ends up in a cave where he has a vision of all the creatures whose bones he imagines are buried in the sand—“Elkbone Wolfbone Sealbone.” Suddenly he has a vision of a new album, Beatlebone, nine perfect songs that will put his musical past to rest. We later get a glimpse of the recording sessions for this imagined album: nothing good seems to be coming from them, which is an odd note for the novel to strike, given how much it otherwise upholds the value of visionary experience. What would it mean for the product of Lennon’s ultimate artistic vision to be nothing but dull screeching?
This bathos is of a piece with the self-deprecation and irony that characterizes so much of the novel.
Take this conversation between Cornelius and John. Cornelius is describing a period in his life when he was addicted to cough syrup:
Jesus Christ. What does six cough bottles down the hatch feel like?
Like an eiderdown wrapped around yourself. It feels like goose feathers. It feels like mother’s love. No matter how hard or cruel the world or the night might be you’re… like a baby… kind of… What’s the word I’m after, John?
Is right. Against all the harshness of the world.
Were there hallucinations, Cornelius?
Were there fucken what. I had a firm belief—this went on for months unending that a particular gap in the hill on the road towards the Highwood was a kind of wink at me. In the night, as I drove through. As if the mountain was marking the passage of time for me in a sort of cheeky way.
The gap in the hill was a wink?
Just so. In the headlights as I drove though
John’s inability to tell Cornelius about the extraordinary things he’s been experiencing—the landscape similarly alive and seeming to signal to him, the revelations about his distant past, his conviction that he is on the way to artistic renewal—fits with the book’s appealing modesty. Irrational power is everywhere, but it’s nothing to make a fuss about. We see Lennon scorn the idea that coming to terms with the death of his mother and the abuse from his father will help him to live as an adult in the present. But we also see Lennon turn again and again, and at the very end of the novel, too, to his parents, especially his love for his mother. We see any number of mystic or non-rational occurrences, but we also see a casualness about them, even a dismissal of them.
In the end, Beatlebone convinces readers that John’s time in Ireland, though hardly idyllic, is genuinely restorative. It is for readers, at any rate. This has everything to do with Cornelius, one of the most compelling characters I’ve come across in a while. Sometimes the novel hints that Cornelius is a figment of Lennon’s imagination, another part of him, maybe a better part, something like the nurturing parent to his vulnerable inner child. But happily the hints stay that way. Mostly we’re to believe in his reality, even if he is larger than life. He’s funny:
Could you handle a shave yourself, maybe?
I think maybe I could.
I see you go reddish in the beard?
When it comes through, yeah. I’m a gingerbeard.
I’m sorry for your troubles, John.
And he’s poignant. Here he is describing his father’s death:
How did it happen, Cornelius?
Well. In the same way that an old dog gets to a certain age and a level of disregard for itself and it just takes off some night into the bushes. My father heard what was coming for him. And we didn’t find him after, in the way you wouldn’t find an old dog—you just wouldn’t—because my father, I have no doubt, put himself in the sea. It was all his life nearby and it would have been an idea always of a way out. He would not have been the type to string himself from the rafter of a barn. He was considerate. There was no show in the man.
There was no show in the man. Beatlebone gives us one of the twentieth century’s greatest showmen—great because he was so ambivalent about the show, seeming to disdain it. Barry’s John is at times as unshow-y as Cornelius’s father, with whom he is associated because he’s forced to wear the dead man’s suit when his other clothes are ruined. At other times he is the petulant star, spoiled, frightened, at an impasse in his life, resentful of the Kate Bush hit that’s always on the radio and wondering if The Muppet Show will ever come calling again.
I don’t know what to say about this novel, exactly. I’m not sure it will stay with me for the ages, but I was absolutely absorbed in it while reading. I will say, though, that something of its belief in psychogeography worked its magic on me. In the past days I’ve returned again and again to our old kitchen, with its brown stools and ochre tile, and me sitting there watching my mother cook dinner and Ronnie, my friend’s dad, coming in and saying, with a kind of grim paranoiac fatalism that seems now as much a part of the 70s as the kitchen’s drab hues, “They shot John. They shot John too.”