Cracking up in County Mayo: Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone

Beatlebone, which has been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize, takes John Lennon to the west of Ireland.

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If there is magic in Ireland, it lies in the west. This is where W B Yeats and Lady Gregory, who saw it as Ireland’s most purely Gaelic region, collected folklore at the end of the 19th century. In the 1960s and 1970s, this legacy of “faery”, coupled with a supply of cheap land, attracted countercultural dropouts looking to build Utopia.

The magical west exerts a pull on Kevin Barry’s work, too, although largely stripped of whimsy. His futuristic first novel, City of Bohane, planted a lawless coastal city on the “Black Atlantic”, surrounded by the wilderness of “Big Nothin’”, and in his story “Fjord of Killary” a poet migrates west to outrun his nervous breakdown:

I was thinking, the West of Ireland . . . the murmurous ocean . . . the rocky
hills hard-founded in a greenish
light (the light of a sad dream) . . .
the cleansing air . . . the stoats peeping shyly from gaps in the drystone
walls . . . Yes. It would all do to make
a new man of me.

In Beatlebone, Barry’s second novel, John Lennon’s thoughts are running the same crooked course. The book, which has been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize for innovative fiction, describes Lennon’s attempt in the spring of 1978 to reach an island he owns in Clew Bay, County Mayo (a location Barry uses in “Dark Lies the Island”, another story about mental anguish and escape). John, who really did buy the island in 1967 for £1,550, wants “three days alone on his island. That is all that he asks. That he might scream his fucking lungs out and scream the days into nights and scream to the stars by night.” But will he find his island among the hundred that litter the bay? And will he successfully evade the Dublin pressmen who, once a Beatle is spotted, come “crawling like demented fucken maggots all over the province of Connaught”?

For John, “the hatches to the underworld are opening” and his episodic quest – like a (very) secular version of Piers Plowman or The Pilgrim’s Progress – grows progressively stranger as we follow him from car to field to hotel, from farmhouse to pub to shady cult HQ. He chats with a dog on a beach and a Scouse seal in a cave. He falls off the wagon and abandons his macrobiotic diet for quantities of black pudding. Whether he’s alone or in the company of his fixer, Cornelius, there is always a sense, pungently conveyed in bold, frequently hilarious prose, of John being out of step with the world. Very often – exhaustingly so, on occasion – he is simply trying to understand what is in front of him. As a result, his life beyond the novel’s here and now is only ever glimpsed.

Those glimpses outline a creative crisis. As far as the historical record goes, we are in Lennon’s househusband years – a spell of relative calm after the heroin and alcohol abuse of the immediate post-Beatles period. Between 1975 and 1980, he didn’t release any music but raised his new baby and mooched around a New York apartment “the size of fucking Birkenhead”.

John’s quest isn’t about blocked creativity, however. It is about his mother, Julia, who died when he was 17. Her death became “his dark star” and Barry understands that some of Lennon’s greatest songs (“Help”, “Julia”, “Mother”) draw their power from a vulnerability rooted in this complicated and foreshortened mother-son relationship.

As Beatlebone progresses, it becomes increasingly involved with occult atmospheres, psychological exorcisms and ghosts, until Barry summons his own to the stage. In one of the book’s nine sections (Lennon was obsessed with the number), Barry yanks us out of the novel with an essay about how he researched it. The essay is part travelogue, part memoir, part countercultural history, the style W G Sebald by way of Hunter S Thompson. The effect is stunning; a diverting book becomes fascinating as Barry discusses his mother’s death: “As a ten-year-old, what I seemed to find most distressing about the fact of a recently dead mother was the seeming mawkishness of having to admit to one.” In one extraordinary passage, he writes:
 

Now when I think of that event . . . it is usually to see how I might use it and manipulate it to add depth and resonance to my work but without allowing sentimentality [to] creep pinkly through.

This interlude, a “making of” that is the making of the novel, exposes the author’s vulnerability: it is as if he doesn’t trust his story to work by itself. Similarly, in naming Beatlebone after a fictional lost (and unlistenable) Lennon album, “some kind of occult fucking jazz thing”, Barry implicitly concedes that his experimental approach might fail, too. By putting these elements at the book’s heart – and surrounding them with passages of, by turns, bravura, euphoric and acerbic writing – Beatlebone comes to embody its subject’s personality.

At one point, in a sly reversal of one of his lyrics, John asks Cornelius to imagine heaven. He places it – where else? – in the west of Ireland but John doesn’t buy it. “The examined life,” he thinks, “turns out to be a pain in the stones. The only escape from yourself is to scream and fuck and make and do.” As an account of the failure to lay memories to rest and the maddening, thrilling power of making and doing, Beatlebone is an electrifying success. 

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry is published by Canongate (263pp, £12.99)

This article appears in the 05 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The end of Europe