Beatlebone is a tour de force of language and literary imagination that marries the most improbable elements to the most striking effect. It is a book that only Kevin Barry would attempt, let alone succeed in pulling off--a Hibernian high wire act of courage, nerve, and great beauty.
On the road with John Lennon
“I'm in a swamp in County Sligo,” Kevin Barry tells me over the phone. The Irish author has lived in at least a dozen places, from his childhood home of Limerick to Spain to Santa Barbara, but he’s settled now in an old police station built in the 1840s, known as the Barracks. Sadly, he says, it doesn’t appear to be haunted.
If it were, he’d surely know. Barry, whose first novel, City of Bohane, won the prestigious IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, is highly attuned to what he calls the “strange reverberations” that linger in towns and landscapes. His new novel, Beatlebone, navigates a world of ghosts and echoes and spooky floating patches of emotion. It’s a musical fever dream of a book that sounds weirder than it is; Barry’s perfectly honed storytelling voice sweeps readers happily through decades and across rough seas.
The wounded hero of Beatlebone is John Lennon, who, in this version, has fled New York domesticity in 1978 and run away to Ireland to spend three days alone on the island he bought a decade earlier. He hopes to do a bit of scream therapy and maybe try to write again. But he has to dodge the press, and on top of that, he’s not at all sure how to find his island. Enter Cornelius O’Grady, local driver, fixer, mentor—and decidedly more than he seems.
How did Barry happen upon this odd tale? “My bicycle led me directly to this story,” he says.
He’d heard there was an island in Clew Bay that Lennon owned. His favorite Beatle’s connection to Ireland continued to fascinate Barry, even after he’d mentioned it in a story or two.
“It wouldn’t let me be!” he says. “It kept coming back at me.” He was “snoozing on the sofa one day” after a bike ride and, startled awake, suddenly realized he should write a novel around it.
“It’s a very risky thing to take such an iconic figure and set him down in one of your stories. When it came to the Beatles, I was always very much Church of John.”
“I was immediately terrified,” Barry says. “It’s a very risky thing to take such an iconic figure and set him down in one of your stories.” He worked carefully and with devotion. “When it came to the Beatles, I was always very much Church of John, ” he says.
The risk paid off; Lennon is a fully convincing yet still original character, none the worse for having been borrowed from real life. Barry says early readers of the book have told him the first thing they do is start Googling to see how much of what they’re reading really happened.
“I love to work right out on the edge of believability,” he says, “where the reader is going, no way. Come on. Well . . . maybe.”
Some of the wondering is put to rest in a section two-thirds of the way through the book, in which Barry steps forward and tells how he came to write the novel. “I always knew I was going to put an essay bang in the middle of the book,” he says.
At its heart, Beatlebone is about what it takes to make a record, to write a book, to create something. “I wanted to put my own struggle in there as kind of a mirror.”
Naturally, Barry visited Lennon’s island while working on the book, in pursuit of those strange reverberations. He tells me the same thing Lennon’s driver, Cornelius, says in Beatlebone: that stories and feelings linger not in people but in places. You might be out for a walk and “a sense of elation would come over you,” Cornelius says.
That patch of happiness could have been floating around the field for the last 10 years. Or for the last 350 years. Because of love that was felt there or a child playing or an old friend who was found again. Whatever it was, it caused a great happy feeling and it was left there in the field.
Of course, you could as easily find a floating sadness or fear.
“I hope this is sounding very hippie-ish,” Barry says, laughing.
Beatle Island, properly called Dorinish, is empty now, apart from nesting terns and their massive eggs and the stories that linger. But the barren isle was once home to one of the earliest organized communes. In 1971, Lennon arranged for a group of New Agers to camp out on his island as an experiment; they stayed about a year and a half. They were part of a trend starting in the ’60s of hippies coming to Ireland, partly because it was cheap to get a cottage along the coast. (“It’s not now,” Barry says.)
“I find it a really interesting time,” he says. The “gray, monolithic” country was opening up to new ideas. “It’s weird and lovely to think that John was involved in that.”
Did Barry try some scream therapy while he was on the island?
“Oh for sure, you’ve got to!” he says. “I was determined to be very method with this book. But,” he adds with a laugh, “there didn’t seem to be very much in there.”
The book took him four years to finish, and you can tell by his tone they were long years.
“The first year,” he says, “there was an awful lot of watching YouTube,” trying to perfect Lennon’s voice from old video clips.
“When the book started to become delightful to me was when I gave John a sidekick,” he says. This would be Cornelius the driver, who has “oodles of roguish charm—we’re never quite sure what he’s up to,” Barry says, adding, after a pause: “He’s kind of me.”
Among the book’s greatest pleasures are the long conversations between Lennon and Cornelius—which Barry admits took a tremendous amount of work to get right. “They have to feel really light and natural on the page,” which meant endless revisions. He acted out the voices, pen in hand, making notes as he read, going over the dialogue hundreds of times.
With Cornelius in place, Barry says, “I started to realize it was the most old-fashioned kind of novel in the world—essentially it’s Don Quixote.” A man goes on a quest, the nature of which is basically irrelevant—it doesn’t really matter if they get to the island. The important stuff is what happens to them along the way.