It's risky business, channeling a real-life international icon as a fictional character. Riskier still to pick John Lennon, controversial in life and death, fiercely beloved and just as fiercely reviled, a charming genius and stellar performer, a prickly and private person whose life and death played out in the spotlight — and a man whose own inventive command of language was at the core of his fame.
Many writers would be daunted, but Kevin Barry is not. Beatlebone, the award-winning Irish writer's second novel (after two short story collections and the novel City of Bohane), is a lyrical, profane, moving trip inside Lennon's head and heart as he visits a remote Irish island in 1978, not to mention a tour de force of style and storytelling.
Last week marked the 35th anniversary of Lennon's murder; Beatlebone takes place just a couple of years before that. At that time, he was living in New York, in the Dakota overlooking Central Park, with his wife, Yoko Ono, and their young son, Sean. He was deep in his domestic phase, playing dad rather than rock star. But the novel opens with his solo trip to visit a tiny, uninhabited island he owns in Clew Bay, off County Mayo in the west of Ireland.
Dorinish (pronounced "Durnish") Island and Lennon's ownership of it are real (he bought it in 1967), but the trip — and trip is a good word — is Barry's invention. John arrives in County Mayo without fanfare, hoping to elude the press, and is taken in hand by a local driver named Cornelius, whom he likes immediately: "Driver has a very smooth timbre, deep and trustworthy like a newscaster, the bass note and brown velvet of his voice, or the corduroy of it, and the great chunky old Merc cuts the air quiet as money as they move."
Cornelius' skills as a driver and guide (in more ways than one) do not mean it will be easy for John to get to his island. It's accessible only by boat, and the passage can be perilous in the wrong weather. The days he must hang around, though, give him, and the reader, time to figure out just why he's there.
When Cornelius asks if he's "a saddish kind of man," Lennon replies:
"As a matter of fact, I don't think I've ever been happier.
"Then what's wrong with you?
"I suppose I'm afraid. ... that all this happiness is going to rot my f------ brain."
He's not making music, and that frustrates him. He is also more than a little freaked out by his age — "I mean thirty f------ seven?" — and, of course, still grappling with the mind-warping effects of international fame at an early age, "and he wants at last to be over himself."
Why Dorinish? It's remote. It's a connection, however tenuous, to John's Irish ancestors. And perhaps it's got its own motives. The island and the surrounding area, John soon discovers, seem to be a place where the usual rules do not apply. John is off the heroin, and the cocaine, and the alcohol, and the LSD, yet a gaggle of ghosts in long black gowns walks into the sea over and over, a white horse gallops by with flames shooting from its nostrils, and a seal climbs into a cave for a cozy conversation with him: "Reality, John, tends not to hang around."
Even the putatively real can be pretty weird, like the trio John encounters who are holed up in the rundown Amethyst Hotel, a piggish older man, a wolfish younger one and an elflike young woman, who draw him into a brutal session of primal scream therapy.
In the midst of this seductive, dreamlike tale, Barry interrupts. It's a bold tactic, but he pulls it off: a businesslike but heartfelt chapter about how he came to write Beatlebone. He begins with his visit to the Dakota "with all the other hunched pilgrims" at 11:11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 2011, "and it felt like the moment to begin." He dives into extensive research, watches interviews with Lennon to capture his voice, pays his own strange visit to Dorinish, asks himself, "how do you bring up the fact of ghosts in reasonable company?" He fills us in on a peculiar phenomenon for which Lennon's hometown of Liverpool is famous, dozens of "time slips" reported over the years on and around Bold Street, a busy shopping area. People suddenly find themselves surrounded by folks wearing clothes from the 1950s or '60s, vehicles of the same vintage passing in the street, long-closed stores doing business in spaces they occupied in those years; a few minutes later, the present reappears.
John, Barry suggests, is looking for his own time slip to those years, not for the heady days of the Beatles (who get barely a mention) but for his childhood. Deep now in parenthood himself, the ghosts he seeks are his mother, "my blue-veined love, my Julia," and his father, a sad sack his aunt described, John tells us, as "me without the spark plug in."
The novel's title, Beatlebone, is the name of a lost, avant-garde Lennon album that Barry imagines, its nine tracks meant to express what he experienced on the island. A late chapter gives us a glimpse of him recording it, "the rattling of the bones; the squalls and the screeching; the occult shimmers; the lonely airs; the sudden madcap waltzes. ..." The session culminates with John huddled under a blanket, recording a soliloquy that gives Molly Bloom a run for her money.
Perhaps the most poignant turn of this tender book is that John's time slips run only one way, back into the past, rather than toward his own impending death — unless, of course, John's visions of his parents are the early glimmers of that commonly reported experience of seeing our loved ones waiting for us just before we pass. In Beatlebone Barry gives those of us who mourn John still a time slip we can treasure.
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.