Kevin Barry—Irish novelist, playwright, screenwriter—is bawdy, funny, and bleak, equally capable of gorgeous lyricizing and profane philosophizing. His books include two collections of stories, as tight as tales of madmen, drunkards, and sloggers could be, and two novels, also beautifully controlled but full of writerly hijinks. He is completely of this moment, in both literary and pop-cultural terms. His first novel, The City of Bohane, is a classic tale of feudal loyalty, betrayal, and intrigue disguised as a futuristic satire (and low comedy) of rival gangs in the West of Ireland. In an author’s note, he cheerfully admits he is as dependent on graphic novels and TV shows for inspiration as he is on his literary touchstones.
Barry’s new novel Beatlebone is far more compact, with a smaller cast of characters and tighter span of time. But it is no less ambitious, as modernist (indeed, as Joycean) in its formal experimentation as it is postmodernist in its acute self-consciousness and shifting centers of narrative gravity. Best to think of it as panmodern, ranging across a century’s worth of literary and popular references. A meditation on place, grief, and longing, the novel features John Lennon (yes, the Beatle) as its protagonist and (sometime) hero. Lennon has bought an island in Clew Bay, as he actually did in 1967, off the coast of County Mayo, Ireland. Over the course of this novel, set in 1978, he makes a comic, halting pilgrimage to his floating piece of sod.
Lennon is in search of refuge and connection to his own Irish forbears; he is also in search of a place where he can Scream, with a capital S. (For readers who may not have been around for the ’60s and ’70s, Barry fills in a brief history of Lennon’s relationship to Arthur Janov’s primal-scream therapy, and the surrounding slew of countercultural attempts to move past the psychological constraints of familial trauma.) Lennon’s loss of his mother Julia when he was seventeen, as well as her decision to have her older sister raise him for most of his childhood, help account for the unabashed longing in his 1968 song “Julia,” which invokes an “oceanchild” with “seashell eyes.”
In Beatlebone, John himself is something of an oceanchild: “alive on the silver” of a fish’s skin, he spends the night in a watery cave where he engages in snappy dialogue with a seal. These are not the only hallucinatory moments in a novel that embraces specters. In the novel’s opening pages, John has “come over a bit strange and dippy again—the hatches to the underworld are opening” as he feels the pull to his “seabeaten” island in “the place of the old blood.” His driver and fixer, a frustrating, constantly disappearing and reappearing charmer named Cornelius O’Grady, dresses John in his dead father’s clothes so that they can go drinking. At the Highwood, John meets a doctor who explains the difference between the Irish and the rest of civilization: “The continental,” he says, “will enjoy a glass of wine with his supper and then very happily go home for the evening. But the Irishman is familiar always with the concept of the lip.... The Irishman will have a glass of wine with his supper and it will be lovely but then he will say”—and here I must cut off a very funny line, unprintable in these pages. The doctor concludes, in shall we say vivid language, with a stereotypical vision that could not be more apt: the Irishman, unable to stop at one lovely glass of wine, is “gone,” as John—exotic with his repeated forays into drugs and exotic belief systems—has been so often gone. Why he thinks his little island of Dorinish will save him is the mystery this novel meditates upon.
The writing in Beatlebone is ecstatically inventive; it won the 2015 Goldsmiths Prize for “creative daring” by a British or Irish novelist. It is composed in nine distinctive parts (the number nine, as Beatles fans will remember, is an important sign for John; but Barry fans will know that he, too, has a fascination with the number nine, alongside a knowledge that searching for numerical patterns is “symptomatic of at least a mild disintegration”). Indeed, the most remarkable section of the novel occurs two-thirds of the way through when the narrator interrupts John’s point of view, which has been presented in a shifting series of lyrical, farcical, dreamy, and satiric set pieces, scripts, and internal monologues. Suddenly Beatlebone’s narrator speaks in the first person (is he Kevin Barry? “Kevin Barry”? A narrative conceit to remind readers of the literary seepage between fiction and nonfiction?). It hardly matters. The chapter is written in a “mature, honed prose, as clear as glass: this from a man who has never knowingly underfed an adjective.” That self-mocking tone is emblematic of the ease with which Barry has slipped from one narrative mode to another throughout. Now the invocation of the narrator’s own childhood loss of his mother provides a strong ironic divide between the novel’s sentimental possibilities and the more demanding requirements of its author’s artistic intelligence.
Barry’s portrait of John Lennon is ultimately both sympathetic and clear-eyed. Like any Lennon fan (like me), Barry is under the delusion that he knows John Lennon—but unlike the rest of us, Barry has immersed himself in John’s moment-to-moment existence. He speaks with Lennon’s tongue (the narrator’s section details listening to hours of interviews to catch his cadences). I believe in this Lennon, even as I wish for more of a sense of John’s movement from psychological torment to political awareness. Lennon the peace activist and feminist are acknowledged, but it’s really the Lennon who can’t let go of childhood longing who controls Beatlebone. He gets to his island: he reclaims his roots, sort of, and maybe even a sense of the sacred. Kevin Barry’s narrative abandon has done “Julia” and Julia full justice, even if it has set John Lennon screaming once again. Beatlebone is a strange, wondrous trip.