‘A scathing and pitch-perfect sense of humour’ – Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

bbkb.pngKevin Barry! A new novel! Bring out the drums! So, Ireland’s finest (or one of the headliners thereof) has got another book out, and we’ve been waiting for it for bloody ages, and it sounds – well, actually, it sounds like a mad fanboy homage to John Lennon, Arthur Janov and all the lost hippy souls that settled on Ireland’s west coast in the late 1970s. Uh-huh: we raised our eyebrows, too.

Okay. It’s 1978 and John Lennon, ex-Beatle, bread-baker and stay-at-home-dad, flies to Ireland for a short break on Dorinish, the uninhabited little island he bought in Clew Bay back in the days of the Fab Four. He’s feeling disheartened: he’s not making music, he misses his long-dead mum (Julia), and he’s not sure how he feels about the whole wife-and-child-and-NYC business. A former student of Janov’s Primal Scream therapy, John fancies some alone-time during which he can Scream out his blues and reignite his creativity. Instead, though, he falls in with one Cornelius O’Grady, a jack-of-all-trades local fella and John’s assigned driver-slash-fixer, and Cornelius’ crew of drunk, mad and eccentric acquaintances. The pair try to sidestep the media that are chasing John west, and they end up first in the Highwood (a pub, of sorts) and then in the Amethyst Hotel on Achill – both establishments reminiscent, in locale, locals and the general tone of barely repressed madness, of the hotel in Barry’s earlier story, ‘The Fjord of Killary’. On Achill, John, the Screamer, meets his nemeses – a cabal of Ranters (think the foulest-mouthed most judgmental Screamers imaginable) determined to convert and/or destroy him. Just as John’s finally on his way, after he’s started to doubt both the feasibility and the wisdom of ever reaching Dorinish, the narrative switches, and we get Barry’s own (or, at least, the Barry-esque narrator’s own) story: how he came upon the Lennon story, how he researched it, how he lost his own mojo, how a study-trip to the real-life island (which Lennon did own, though he didn’t in fact visit it in ’78, or so says Barry in the meta-section) affected him and his own creative powers. And then we’re back to Lennon, London, and the (fictional) recording of a comeback album (Beatlebone) based on his watery island experiences and revelations. In short: it takes John longer than he expected to get to the island, mainly due to the demented nearby residents; the island interlude itself goes unexplored; and after he’s finally been and returned, he records an album that’s implied to be, well, difficult.

So far, so interesting, but is it any good? When we reviewed City of Bohane back in 2011 we noted that its slightness of plot was outweighed (or, indeed, made outright irrelevant) by Barry’s ear for language, by the peculiar rhythms of his own distinctive Hibernian idiolect – well, Beatlebone’s plot (we’ll call it a plot) is, as might be apparent, as slight as they come, so if you didn’t like the earlier book on that count, you’re probably not going to be laying the odds for Barry’s Booker in 2016. On the other hand, of course, the language is as high-octane as ever we’ve seen it, so the fans will be delighted. Check out the first encounter with Cornelius:

‘The driver has a high purple colour – madness or eczema – and his nose looks dead’.

High-five to the Joyce spotters:

‘He hears [the sea] drag on its cables – a slow rusted swooning’.

And here’s Cornelius at his breakfast:

‘He moves the great boulder of a head in slow swoops over the plates as though by the arm of a crane.  […] A powerful chewer: the way his massive chin swings side to side and churns – they are handing out the chins around here.’

Like all of Barry’s work, it’s funny. It’s brutally funny. It’s a dialogue-heavy book, and his ear’s as sharp and caustic as ever:

‘There are some people, the old man says, who are not only old at forty but they’re bitter aul’ cunts, too. Do you know what I mean?

I surely do.

But there’s no worry in that because they’ll all get the fuckin cancer.’

We were lucky enough to hear the man himself read from Beatlebone at the Manchester Literature Festival, and it’s pure music: he says he’ll get through a hundred drafts of any one section of dialogue alone, and you can tell.

Plus Barry’s ‘straight’ narrative of his hunt for Lennon and Dorinish, is littered with pieces of social history you never before knew you lacked – who’d have thought the West of Ireland was such a beacon for stray Screamers? As Barry says (and again with the wit, but a wit tempered greatly with empathy), ‘they deserve proper notation in the as yet unwritten radical history of the west of Ireland’. Beatlebone, in its own, mostly fictional, way, goes some way towards laying the groundwork for such a history (we’d read that book if he ever cares to write it). And it’s also a sad novel: John’s unresolved issues with his dead parents – his hatred of, and sympathy for, his runaway father, and his mourning for his press-maligned mother – drive his looming breakdown, and tie in too with the crisis he’s having abut his own position as a parent, particularly in so far as it links with and affects his own life as an artist. His dad, we’re reminded, was a bar-room singer. The book’s self-conscious anxiety about the production of art is effective: Lennon’s angst mirrors Barry’s, or vice versa, and it’s reflected, too, in the novel’s gestures towards formal experimentation.

Gestures, you say? But the book screams inventiveness! It’s got all sorts of different narrative techniques and tricks on the go! What about the Rant scene, with its script-like layout? What about the whole bloody long metafictional commentary bit? What about how he uses photography? What about the fact/fiction mash-up? Hey? Isn’t that more than a gesture? Well, yes and no: we haven’t seen all this stuff together in the one text before, so fair play to Barry for that, and because the whole book is about creative freedom and expression, if it were it all ‘normal’, there’d be a taint of hypocrisy about it, but yet, by and large, we have seen it all before: see Nicholson Baker, see even that Eggers upstart. The metafictional commentary (Barry as auteur, Lennon as Barry stand-in) is most definitely fascinating (it was a great read; it was one of the sections we enjoyed the most) but you’ve got to hark back to Sebald, then, especially as it’s also a bit of a countryside-exploration book, and when you throw the photography into the mix, too, you’ve got to concede that it’s been done. Unless you only ever read earlier Kevin Barry, of course, the experiments here are less experimental than the book suggests they’re intended to be. But, but, but: they still leap off the page. The man’s a linguistic genius. And there’s an abundance of heart here; this isn’t an exercise in literary cartwheeling, but a loving exploration of creativity and its paranoia and anxiety and euphoria.

And checking back in with his earlier work: while this isn’t by any means Bohane redux – there’s eighty years between the tales, if nothing else; the post-apocalyptic mania of the earlier book replaced by a historical insanity in the other – the Maytime of Beatlebone and the haunting east winds (think Jarndyce in Bleak House!) and the melancholic reverberances across time that both Cornelius and Barry-the-narrator describe, still hark back to the portentous Big Nothing of Bohane. There’s a common theme, then, across the novels: landscape might as well be alive, time is in flux, memory is tricky and people are peculiar as all hell. If Beatlebone – perhaps similarly to Zadie Smith’s NW – isn’t blowing established form to pieces, well, that’s okay: we’ve still got to admire its ambition, and, more importantly, what it does achieve. It’s a showcase for Barry’s innovation, rhythm and overall mastery of language, his feel for place, his analyses of  self-expression and creative production. In the latter pages of the book, Beatlebone the album (the fictional corollary of Beatlebone the novel) is suggested to be, perhaps, at its weakest, ‘a scream to pierce the moment against the darkness that’s coming’. At its best, though, it’s

‘[the] rattling of the bones; the squalls and the screeching; the occult shimmers; the lonely airs; the sudden madcap waltzes; the hollowed voices; the sibilant hiss; the asylum screams; the wretched moans; the violence, love, and tenderness – beatlebone.’

If we were to compare it to a single other text, it’d probably be Alan Warner’s These Demented Lands, which takes the quiet-ish world of Morvern Callar and dumps its heroine onto an island full of machinating freaks and perverts – but while Warner’s novel really wasn’t a success (it lacked the quiet subtlety and strength of Morvern Callar), Barry’s is immensely readable, very evocative, and suffused, as ever, with a scathing and pitch-perfect sense of humour.

Any Cop?: Definitely worth a read both for Barry’s fans and for Lennon’s fans, and if you’re coming fresh, we’d also redirect you to Bohane for sheer lunacy, to the story collections for technical skill and variety, and – if you’ve got the bug – to the upcoming Beatlebone audio-book, read by Barry himself. You’ll rarely ever hear a better reader: we’d bet our ears on it.

Valerie O’Riordan


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