Kevin Barry writes the best sentences in English and his new novel, Beatlebone, is outrageously good—better even than his massively well-regarded and awarded (and excellent) début novel City of Bohane. The trick here is to acknowledge that this review is written by a thirty-seven-year-old serious Beatles fan (meaning: a serious Lennon fan), and so I have nothing but doubts as to my objectivity in assessing a novel set in 1978 and featuring a thirty-seven-year-old John Lennon. Plus there’s the deeply compromising fact that Beatlebone might be described as being about Making the Truest Art One Might Muster, the sort of art most of us recognize on sight as having exacted an almost beautifully steep price on its maker, which, in fact, is compromising because this review is written by someone who spends way too much time considering precisely that issue. All of which is to say that, while I like the book a lot, the scope of this review will try to find out how the novel in question might be generative and useful and sustaining for folks without quite my Venn-diagram level of overlap with it.
It’s 1978, May, and Lennon’s in the west of Ireland, County Mayo, seeking to get to his island in Clew Bay for a few days of screaming. Fun fact: Lennon actually owned an island in Clew Bay off the west coast of Ireland, visiting it only a few times (with Cynthia, with Yoko). In Beatlebone he’s attempting to get to the island for—overtly—some screaming, and here’s where maybe knowing lots (arguably: too much) about the Beatles helps. There was something called Primal Scream Therapy, made splashy or cool by Arthur Janov in the 1970s, and, as with many of the countercultural trends simmering at the time, Lennon took part. The object of Scream Therapy was to un- and/or re-cover old traumas, and the method should be clear. At the book’s start Lennon’s in a car being driven by a magnificent trickster we’ll come to know is Cornelius; page one is the first taste of the glory of Barry’s sentences: “He hears a blue yonderly note from somewhere, perhaps it’s from within.” Go ahead and substitute parenthetical exclamation marks at the end of that in your mind’s margin: That’s the sort of writer Barry is, dropping yonderly to describe a note and pausing not at all.
The plot of the novel is simple: John’s trying to get to his island to scream, and circumstances prevent him variously—the press sniffs him out after a night spent at a bar with Cornelius; he ends up spending an untoward amount while at a hotel called the Amethyst—and the actual this-happens-then-this-happens of the book is secondary to the persistent drive that Lennon has to get to his island. And why does he want to get there so badly? Here’s yet another place it helps to be slightly Beatle-obsessive. In the ’70s, Lennon had a weird go: early ’70s and heroin, some not-great albums, then the Lost Weekend, an eighteen-month debauchery undertaken with Nilsson, as of the mid-’70s there wasn’t much: a macrobiotic diet and Lennon was off all sauces save smoke, and Barry here posits that Lennon had maybe dried up somewhat, or at least was having a hard time making good new music, stuff that reached anywhere within him. From ’75 – ’80, Lennon was a stay-at-home dad with his son, eating brown rice, living at the Dakota, on New York’s Upper West Side.
Bear in mind, too, that Lennon wrote the razor songs in the Beatles’ catalogue, wrote “Julia” (for his mom) and “Yer Blues” (Yes I‘m lonely, wanna die) and “And Your Bird Can Sing” (but you can’t get me) and “Come Together” and even his bubblegumisms have edge: there’s “Help” (as unadorned a cry as one’s likely to hear from anything given to us in 1964) and there’s—everyone forgets this—“Run For Your Life,” in which he threatens a girlfriend’s life. Even his weird, more surreal stuff attempted movement: think of the gnarled thorniness of “Strawberry Fields Forever” (or “Tomorrow Never Knows”) versus, for example, the bright extroversion of McCartney’s “Penny Lane.”
All of which has lots to do with why, as of page six, when Cornelius asks, “What’s on your mind?” Lennon thinks first not easy to say and then thinks love, blood, fate, death, sex, the void, mother, father, cunt, and prick—these are the things on his mind. The point being: the Lennon in Beatlebone is the Lennon most of us know from the music, someone hit hard by heavy stuff, someone unable to, like his old songwriting partner, just let loose and get goofy, have some fun, sing a little, and live a little.
And of course, as it happens to most of us who attempt any sort of catharsis, the catharsis Lennon seeks isn’t the one he gets.
Beatlebone (which takes, as its title, an album Barry imagines Lennon recording in chapter eight) features, in chapter six, an intrusion you’re better off knowing less about rather than more, but please be aware that the book’s never trying to throw the reader—this isn’t one of those weird-for-weird’s sake books. In chapter nine, toward the book’s conclusion, there’s: “The examined life turns out to be a pain in the stones. The only escape from yourself is to scream and fuck and make and do,” and while the line makes plenty of sound, context-less sense if you get there, in the book, you see something startling as you round the thing’s last bend, because it’s a story about John Lennon, sure, but it’s also a book about the necessity of getting out of one’s way in order to most fully become one’s self. It sounds like a koan. Lennon probably would’ve loved it (he was, after all, the guy who said, “Letting go is the whole game, isn’t it? You put your finger on it, it slips away”). I can’t honestly imagine who wouldn’t.