Book review: Beatlebone imagines John Lennon on his remote Irish island in 1978, screaming
This existential novel is so good for so long that its eventual unravelling doesn’t really matter terribly much
Beatlebone: A Novel
by Kevin Barry
In 1967, John Lennon bought a small island off the west coast of Ireland called Dorinish. It wasn’t much of an island, just a pasture and some rocks, which, Kevin Barry tells us in his second novel, Beatlebone, “were harvested for ballast by the local fishing fleet”. Although Lennon wanted to establish a utopian community on Dorinish (in the early 1970s, he invited a group to start a commune on the land), he visited the island just twice.
The story is intriguing, not least because it’s rare to come upon a lesser-known narrative about the Beatles – and yet the unexpected turn of Barry’s novel, which imagines a 1978 trip by Lennon to Dorinish, is that it isn’t really about the singer at all.
“The idea,” the author writes late in the novel, “was that I would get to the island and I would Scream, I would Scream until I was hoarse and my throat was cut and ribboned, and I would let out all of the green bile that seeps up in a life.”
Such expiation sits at the centre of Beatlebone, which posits something similar for Lennon: the desire to spend three days alone on Dorinish screaming, in the hope that he’ll emerge from the experience cleansed.
In that regard, Beatlebone is more an existential novel than a rock ’n’ roll one, and it’s so good for so long that it doesn’t really matter when it unravels in the end. Barry, whose previous novel, City of Bohane, won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, is a genius of the language, teasing out Impressionistic riffs that channel emotion into words.
There’s more than a little Dylan Thomas in many passages, which is only appropriate, since he was a poet Lennon admired. More to the point is how time opens in that final sentence, as if it were finite and infinite at once.
Barry frames Ireland as haunted, rich with ghosts. The singer finds himself in the company of a local named Cornelius, who has his own relationship to the ineffable. The plot of the novel, such as it is, involves their quest to reach Dorinish, which sits among more than 300 other small islands, indistinguishable to any significant extent.
What Barry is evoking is a sense of the mysterious, the belief that nothing is for certain, not even the physicality of the land. His Lennon seeks purity through solitude, but this just leads to a different sort of madness, the madness of the solitary soul.
In its aftermath the novel starts to drift. Lennon leaves Ireland to make an album called (yes) Beatlebone: “some kind of occult … jazz thing” in which he “has gone off to the vaults of darkness again”. It’s the kind of record I imagined when I learned, in summer 1980, that he had returned to the studio. Yet the album he did record, Double Fantasy, contains almost none of that troubling darkness, which causes us to confront again the blurry line between reality and fiction, between the way things happen and the way we wish they might have.
This is both the beauty and the flaw of Beatlebone, which insists on rendering our heroes as mythic figures, even (or especially) if they are imperfect, trapped between public image and private pain.
Los Angeles Times