Book Review: Beatlebone (2015)
by Alan F. Zundel
A novel about John Lennon? By an author with the Irish way with words? Who can resist!
Not I. Nor was I disappointed. Kevin Barry, an author in Ireland, delivers a love letter to John wrapped in bouquets of playfully artful language. John, as you may know, was descended from Irish folk. And as you may not know, he once bought an island off the coast of Ireland.
The plot of the novel, such as it is, has John returning to visit the island ten years after he bought it and two years before his death. John is in a bad way, as he hasn’t been able to write a song in four years and is tortured by thoughts of his past.
His chauffeur and tour guide through what turns out to be—of course—a strange trip is Cornelius O’Grady, a delightful interlocutor who matches John in wit and wisdom and surpasses him in his ability to accept life in all of its unforgiving mystery. They banter back and forth through long drives in the countryside, a drunken visit to a local pub, a stay at a three-person commune in a decrepit hotel, and a sinking boat in the Irish Sea.
Tell me just the one thing, John.
Why’s it you want to go to this little island?
Because I want to be that fucking lonely I’ll want to fucking die.
Cornelius jaws on this for a bit and winces, and he nods it through—he is at length satisfied.
I have you now, he says.
The blue-bleak hills. The veiling of the fog.
This is just what I’m after, John says.
He is all business now—
About a boat and supplies?
Do I look like the fucken boy scouts, John?
Barry spins out their rambles in an orgy of words producing exquisite pleasure and smiles of satisfaction in the reader:
By night the old garden is sweet as incense and hollow as a church. There is a great heaviness here. Tang on the air of the summer-come-soon, and with it the years are coming back—windy beaches, freckled youth, the thin reddish-brown limbs of a north-western summer; the summer of his lost anonymous England; Tropic of Lancashire. He speaks now in his old true voice. Feeling lurches; feeling shrieks. He cannot think about his father easily. It causes too much commotion. He’ll have a fag and a brandy instead—tamp all that stuff down. That way you can keep the past locked in.
Barry’s depiction resurrects the John so familiar from my youth, hearing and seeing him constantly on records, television, radio and the movies, the John who accompanied an entire generation through the messy turn of the aeon that took place sometime at the end of the 1960s.
John was our big brother and an intimate friend and in a way the other Beatles were not. Paul gave us his silly love songs, George offered mysticism and more music, and poor Ringo struggled with alcoholism post-Beatles, but John lived our life with us. The politics, the faith in art and in candor, the struggles with drugs and with friends, the need to withdraw. We went through it all together.
Until he disappeared. I miss him the way I miss my own departed friends, and to have him back again in a few sittings with this book was like a reunion with someone dear I had lost touch with so long, long ago.
Towards the end of the novel it takes a turn in a more experimental direction, one of particular interest for a writer as I flatter myself to be. Barry recounts some of his research for and struggle with the book. It works surprisingly well.
Less successful is a chapter depicting a supposed lost tape recorded by John after his soggy adventure on the Irish island. It harks of the experimental John of the Plastic Ono Band of the end of the ’60s rather than the John who gifted us with the Double Fantasy album a decade later.
But no matter. The closing returns us to John’s parting from Cornelius and a poignant memory of his past. How fitting; for John is himself now but a poignant memory.
As we all shall be, soon enough. Or perhaps much too soon.