What if John Lennon had disappeared in 1978 and retreated to Dorinish, his own small island off the coast of Ireland? This is the basis for Kevin Barry’s dreamlike second novel, “Beatlebone.”
Barry, winner of the 2013 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, dips in and out of John’s mind, stitching the story together with an amalgam of clipped dialogue, stream of consciousness and lyrical descriptions of landscape. Lennon may have done his share of drugs, but, “This is the story of his strangest trip.”
John is 37. Eight years post-Beatles, he battles writer’s block, and “the hatches to the underworld are opening.” He’s also “angry as hell.” After some primal scream therapy — an actual practice where patients re-enact childhood traumas in order to resolve repressed pain — John is antsy for some screaming in solitude.
“He wants to get to his island but unseen and unheard of — he wants to be no more than a rustle, no more than a shade.” His fixer and driver, Cornelius, takes it upon himself to protect John from the insatiable media. Like the rough-and-tumble gang members of Barry’s explosive first novel, “City of Bohane,” John often slips into fits of nostalgia while hiding out in shabby hotels. “The tea is strong and sweet and tastes of Liverpool.”
When the press gains on them, they move to a more shadowy hotel on Achill Island. Fellow scream therapy enthusiasts use a room upstairs, except theirs is group therapy and incorporates rants.
“There are voices upstairs — young, unsettled, roaring.” John engages, albeit reluctantly, with the manager of the hotel, Director Joe, and a bizarre young couple, Frank and Sue.
This scene, structured like a play, is perhaps the book’s weirdest, most compelling scene. And in a wickedly daring move, Barry interrupts the story, delving into his own artistic process with a short personal essay, explaining that previous writing about Lennon has either “tended towards hagiography or character assassination.”
Ultimately, “Beatlebone” is an odyssey of the mind. Its ever-shifting modes vividly recall James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” down to the Molly Bloom-esque soliloquy at the end of the book, in the studio with John’s producer.
Despite the writer’s block, the fits of nostalgia, the repressed memories of his father and mother, and the “sadness that’s ripe and livid on the air,” John doesn’t seem too irked. He’s cranky, dispassionate, full of want but not desperate. The island simply represents an idea.
What’s at stake in his getting to the island? We never really know, which is a tricky feat to pull off. Barry succeeds by parsing John’s limbo state so clearly and vividly.
Josh Cook’s writing has appeared in the Iowa Review, Sugar House Review, the Millions, and elsewhere. He lives in the Twin Cities.