The premise of Kevin Barry’s novel “Beatlebone” is irresistible. In 1978 John Lennon travels across Ireland trying to reach an island so he can scream. This is an island he purchased years ago hoping to establish an arts community there, but which has remained nothing but a weather-beaten desolate pile of rocks. Now the artistically-frustrated famous singer wants nothing more than to spend a few days there to practice his primal scream therapy he learned in California. But there’s a problem; Ireland gets in his way. His well-meaning philosophical driver takes him on his journey, but Lennon is diverted by the press which hounds him, drunken nights at the pub, a dog he dubs with the name Brian Wilson and a small new-age group living in an island’s dilapidated hotel who engage in a disturbingly confrontational practice called “the rants.” All the while Lennon craves nothing but solitude and to escape the newly popular sound of Kate Bush singing about her wily, windy moors. The sensational aspect of this tale gradually moves aside to reveal a deeply-effective meditation on the search for meaning. It’s also full of gutsy-good humour and some of the snappiest profanity-ridden dialogue you’ll ever read.
It’s fantastic the way Barry uses language to evoke place and the lives of his characters. His descriptive writing is so precise in conveying a particular mood. So, as Lennon and his driver are travelling along the coast at one point, we’re given the line “The seabirds hover watchfully with their mad eyes, all wingspan and homicide.” Its lines like this which heighten the mood and imaginatively draw the reader into a scene. The tone of the book also swings in sync with the emotional state of the characters so the narrative can go from stark realistic descriptions of Lennon’s quest to more fragmented parts when he comes under extreme distress. At one point the language breaks into a synesthetic rush matching Lennon’s state of mind: “the scent of the girls’ voices is on the air – their voices are coloured yellow and racing green.” There are many vibrant characters ranging from a drunken woman hilariously ranting in a pub to an emphatic guru trying to get John to emotionally open up. The dialogue is pitched so well that I felt like I could hear the characters in my head and picture the expressions on their faces perfectly.
Amidst John’s quest to get to his island, Barry does something quite unusual a little over halfway through the book. He breaks for a while to speak directly to the reader about his research writing this novel and how he himself tried to emulate the experience he creates for Lennon in a cave. Patricia Duncker’s recent novel “Sophie & the Sibyl” uses a similar sort of authorial intrusion in her fictional narrative. It works differently in “Beatlebone” making Barry into more of a fictional character himself, but they both produce the similar effects of playfully breaking the fictional illusion and mixing the emotional tribulations of the author with the characters that they are writing about. Here Lennon’s artistic crisis in trying to produce meaningful new music is reflected in Barry’s struggle to write the novel he wants to. So towards the end it feels as if John’s speech about his new album could be coming from the author himself: “What’s it about? Fucking ultimately? It’s about what you’ve got to put yourself through to make anything worthwhile. It’s about going to the dark places and using what you find there.” The struggles of the artistic process are felt all the more dearly knowing Barry’s thoughts. I found that the interjection came at the perfect point in the narrative where the momentum of the journey was waning and it was enhanced by this dramatic shift.
I think any reader can empathize with Lennon’s drive for some solitude to reflect and make sense of how to progress further in the work he wants to do. The physical reality of the island isn’t ultimately what matters. It’s the emotional state of the person who journeys there and the radical confrontation with himself he must make in a lonely place where there is no one to answer to, no one to perform for and no reason to proceed other than to get out of the trap of his mind. Barry states with characteristic blunt humour: “The examined life turns out to be a pain in the stones. The only escape from yourself is to scream and fuck and make and do.” Sometimes we lose our momentum and purpose to continue forward in life. “Beatlebone” brilliantly and entertainingly explores a quest to find the way back to what we really want.