I’m not an expert on the Beatles or John Lennon, but I did grow up watching the latest documentaries and reading about the iconic British band. I guess you could call me a fan.
With that said, I eagerly picked up Kevin Barry’s “Beatlebone” — a reimagining of Lennon and his travels with an Irish cabbie named Cornelius as they make their way to Dorinish, an island in the west of Ireland that John had bought 11 years prior.
The story is set in 1978 — two years before Lennon’s death — and he is seeking to do Dr. Janov’s Scream therapy to clear his mind of domesticity, fame, money and the memory of his parents. He’s also trying to break from a creative rut.
As the narrator describes: “He cannot hold the moment. It is the moment itself that contains all riches. Maybe on his own island he will finally learn to hold the moment. He needs to get to his own island. He has been drawn there again for a reason.”
The novel focuses more on Lennon and his existential journey rather than the adventure to the island. Joe, a New Age guru who runs a hotel, sums up the novel perfectly: “We’re just trying to peel the skin back…. Relax yourself.”
Barry does a wonderful job of capturing the Irish dialect of Cornelius and the nuances of Lennon’s speech. It takes a page or two to pick up on the language, but once in, you’re pulled through the novel.
One thing that becomes clear is Barry’s use of form. Each of the nine parts take a new structure or reverts back to one previously used. Normally I’m skeptical when an author does this, but the book’s humor and quirky characters make this work.
The biggest deviation occurs two-thirds of the way through. It’s as if Barry can feel the reader questioning the authenticity of the story, such as if Lennon actually owned an island or if a particular hotel existed. In an effort to authenticate his work, Barry inserts what is essentially a stand-alone nonfiction essay of himself visiting places connected to Lennon in the west of Ireland.
Barry’s risk pays off brilliantly. The nonfiction section, for me, was the best and boldest part. It took me from liking the novel to loving it.
The section feels like an introduction or epilogue, but Barry foresees the problems with both options — introductions spoil the story and epilogues come too late. Barry places the section in the spot that successfully validates his re-creation of Lennon and increases the tension in the fictional story.
“Beatlebone” is a perfect novel for someone who loves good fiction, or who wants to dive into the human condition, or any Beatles fan.
“Beatlebone” by Kevin Barry (299 pages; Doubleday; $24.95)