This extraordinary book is at once so brilliant and so deeply flawed that it presents an enjoyably knotty conundrum for a reviewer. Kevin Barry’s “Beatlebone” is a strange, intense and slightly incoherent extended fantasy about two months that John Lennon spent in Ireland in 1978, fleeing an invasive press while searching for sanctuary on a remote island he had purchased on a whim. As unlikely as this premise seems, Barry is largely able to carry it off by force of imagination and by a super-charged prose style that borrows heavily from James Joyce, Flann O’Brien, J.P. Donleavy and other past masters of extravagant Irish lyricism at its high-modernist peak.
In Barry’s telling, John Lennon is psychologically fragile, wracked with an inchoate sense of despair, just out of a half-decade-long heroin-and-cocaine bender, obsessed with the primal scream therapies of New Age guru Arthur Janov, estranged from Yoko Ono and haunted by dreams of his dead parents and his youth in Liverpool. Guided by a mysterious local named Cornelius, who plays an avuncular Virgil to Lennon’s tortured Dante, Lennon bounces from one unlikely way station to another until he finally experiences a mystical revelation: He will record a visionary album called “Beatlebone” that will act as a musical exorcism and restore to him a semblance of peace.
To get there, though, first he will have to survive a series of harrowing accounts with menacing natives, a deranged all-night pub bacchanal, a stay at a sinister commune and a perilous sea journey out to the island. All of this is narrated in a freewheeling, aggressively poetic prose style that gives the narrative a hallucinatory quality that is evocative but that wears thin after a while. “Beyond the high window the sky moves its clouds,” runs a typical sentence, “and now clearly the night by the silver of its starlight shows — The sceptered tops of the moving pines.” There’s a lot of this kind of thing; and an Irish writer who works this vein is practically daring you not to make a comparison of some kind to Joyce. This is understandable, but unwise.
What catapults “Beatlebone,” thrillingly and frustratingly, into the realm of the near-great is an abrupt discursion that occurs about two-thirds of the way through. Barry suddenly interrupts Lennon’s rambling odyssey to interject an authorial note about his working methods and research into the novel’s historical background. The chapter — a David Foster Wallacean swerve into a crisp nonfictional standpoint — provides illuminating background on the period the novel documents. What could have been a metafictional gimmick succeeds, against all odds, as some of the most vivid and engaging writing in the book. Barry’s understanding of, and identification with, his subject vibrates with genuine resonance. Watching archival footage of Lennon on television, Barry notes “a haughtiness that can be almost princely . . . an impatience that can bleed almost into bitterness.” He concentrates on absorbing Lennon’s “liquid, singular, sniping voice” with its “verbal tics redolent of 1960s cool.” Barry traces the musician’s movements among the weird outcasts and “far-flung outposts of Aquarius” that comprise “the as yet unwritten radical history of the west of Ireland.” (Now there is a book I’d read.)
The slow, sour crack-up of the post-’60s counterculture is in many ways considerably more interesting than its utopian zenith, and in this outlier chapter Barry nails the feeling of exhaustion and despair with uncanny accuracy. One cannot help but wonder how the novel might have taken shape had this strange second point of view been allowed to flower, perhaps in running counterpoint to the oneiric picaresque of the main narrative. As it is, the next chapter dutifully returns to Lennon and Cornelius and their crabwise slog toward the mysterious island where Lennon will experience his epiphany.
The book ends on a tentative upswing, when Lennon returns to London to record his imaginary “occult jazz thing” full of “the squalls and the screechings” of “violence, love, and tenderness.” There is something almost unbearably poignant about the book’s winding down. In real life, of course, Lennon recorded no such avant-garde terror-machine, but rather, returned to Yoko Ono, to the hard-won domestic peace that eluded him for so long, and to the making of the coruscating “Double Fantasy,” released just weeks before his murder. It is partly this sense of doom postponed, but never completely forestalled, that gives “Beatlebone” its peculiar beauty.
Michael Lindgren is a writer and musician in New Jersey.
By Kevin Barry
Doubleday. 299 pp. $24.95