Book Review

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

We need to talk about how you wouldn't get a literary novelist called Kevin in England

Ireland, a country where people called Kevin are writers of literary prose.

I envy the Irish.

For me, trapped in class-conscious England with a similarly working class name – especially for those born in the late ’80s – certain roads have always been closed to me.

Posh people baulk at my name when I’m introduced to them as if – until that moment – they had seen me as a presumed equal.

“Scott” is a harsh, abrasive sound. It is short, and it was a popular name for working class Brits in the late 1980s because it was the name of Jason Donovan’s character in Neighbours.

Kevin – for me – is a similarly unglamorous name, tied most securely to Harry Enfield’s teenager and linked to a distinctly unglamorous, unliterary, world.

I went to primary school in my dead end hometown with many Kevins, as well as many Scotts. When I started attending a grammar school across the county line (and thus the official North-South divide), there were no Kevins and no other Scotts.

Names are important class signifiers in England, and I doubt anyone called Kevin would be allowed to get a literary book published on Brexit Island. Certainly not a beautiful, evocative, experimental tour de force that made me scream with real literary joy on multiple occasions.

His name may be Kevin, but Beatlebone is killa. Beatlebone is very good, I mean. I panicked and did alliteration. I’m in a weird mood, had too many coffees and (still) no booze for five weeks to balance them out.

///

Beatlebone won the 2015 Goldsmiths Prize, and Kevin Barry’s first novel, City of Bohane, won the 2012 European Union Prize for Literature, the same award that the spell-binding Quiet Flows the Una won for Faruk Sehic and Evie Wyld won for All The Birds, Singing (a book that I’ll be reading in the next few weeks after I found a copy in a leisure centre). In short, as Barry is so acclaimed, his writing and this novel come to a reader with some baggage – this is meant to be good, we have been told it is good, so there is a risk for disappointment. A great risk, though, that doesn’t occur. Beatlebone is a literary banger.

If you – like me – are interested in John Lennon, the literature/culture of Ireland and experimental contemporary fiction, then this is a perfect read. Set on the West Coast of Ireland in 1978, it is the narrative of the kinda washed-up John Lennon going to spend a few days alone on Dorinish, a small island he rashly bought a decade before. His fixer and guide is a man called Cornelius, who helps Lennon avoid the paparazzi and get (eventually) to Dorinish. On their way they spend some time hiding at the Amethyst Hotel, which is inhabited by a weird waster sex cult that Lennon strains himself to avoid getting sucked into. As he approaches his island, finally, the novel cuts away to the present day, and Kevin Barry appears on our pages as he researches, justifies and explores the places and characters that exist in the rest of the (fictional) novel. This is exactly the kind of thing I LOVE, and even though it happens fairly regularly with novels now (like the spellbinding ending of A Time To Every Purpose Under Heaven that – more than anything in My Struggle – has kept me sprinting to the bookstore every time a new Knausgaard is published, despite diminishing returns), it is deeply enjoyable to read Barry grounding his fiction in reality, exploring what is real and what is imagined, clarifying where inspiration sits and where research lays. I find this satisfying, texts commenting on themselves from within. There’s a fascinating essay by D.H. Lawrence on Lady Chatterley’s Lover [that I can’t find online], for example, that lifts the text, raises what is a near-perfect novel into something more, something higher. Something self-conscious as well as empathetic, universal, heart-breaking. Barry does something similar here.

I’m not being very specific with my comments, I know. Beatlebone uses stream of consciousness, dialogue written as script, psychological insights into Lennon as well as those around him (a la Mrs Dalloway), it travels into memories, evokes wild parties and intoxication, explores love and fame and regret and addiction, maturity, fear of death, ageing, creative decline, creative rediscovery, blindness to the self, development of the self, psychology, cults, 1960s ideology, and it explores all with humanity and humour. This is a funny book, but also a sad book. It is about a man who fears he has already died inside but seeks a redemption, a redemption that every contemporary reader knows he will never get. This is 1978, Lennon died in 1980. All of Lennon’s best work was long behind him (unless you think ‘(Just Like) Starting Over‘ is better than The White Album and Plastic Ono Band – which it isn’t) and the creative ideas he expresses in the latter half of the book don’t seem great, don’t seem sufficient to change anything. They didn’t, they don’t. Would John Lennon still be touring today, if he hadn’t been shot, like McCartney, his voice fading and his skills lessening, or would he have died in violence in a different way, in a different time? Who knows.

Beatlebone made me remember all of Lennon’s wonderful music, but more than that it let me live within Kevin Barry’s gorgeous prose. This is lyrical, musical, writing, Irish experimentalism that works on every page – when we slip into script rather than prose it is for a reason, when Barry describes music or landscape or intoxication he evokes it, hard and immediate. This is prose to sink into, to jump into, a beautiful book about a justifiably important 20th century cultural figure and Beatlebone is worthy of the attention it automatically gets as a novel about John Lennon. A great read, I loved it, and I will certainly be getting my hands on City of Bohane before long.

Highly recommended. Even though there’s a Kurt Vonnegut anus on the cover.

Here’s one of my favourite Lennon songs to close things off:

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