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Review: John Lennon imagined in ‘Beatlebone’ (or is he really?)

Kevin Barry

Kevin Barry

(Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert / Getty Images)

In 1967, John Lennon bought a small island off the west coast of Ireland called Dorinish. It wasn’t much of an island, just a pasture and some rocks, which, Kevin Barry tells us in his second novel, “Beatlebone,” “were harvested for ballast by the local fishing fleet.” Although Lennon wanted to establish a utopian community on Dorinish (in the early 1970s, he invited a group to start a commune on the land), he visited the island just twice.

The story is intriguing, not least because it’s rare to come upon a lesser-known narrative about the Beatles — and yet the unexpected turn of Barry’s novel, which imagines a 1978 trip by Lennon to Dorinish, is that it isn’t really about the singer at all.

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Sure, there are identifying traces: This Lennon lives at the Dakota and he longs to “work again and breathe again and write again, and not be locked to the … past — that he might play again — not locked to the past — that he can write again — not locked to the past and its same old song.” But he is also tormented in ways that may have less to do with Lennon than with Barry himself.

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Kevin Barry

The cover of “Beatlebone” by Kevin Barry.

(Doubleday)

“The idea,” the author writes late in the novel, “was that I would get to the island and I would Scream, I would Scream until I was hoarse and my throat was cut and ribboned, and I would let out all of the green bile that seeps up in a life — the envy, the jealousy, the meanness — and I would let out all the hate — especially the hate — and I would Scream to the grey sky above me and Scream to the stars and taunt the night.”

Such expiation sits at the center of “Beatlebone,” which posits something similar for Lennon: the desire to spend three days alone on Dorinish screaming, in the hope that he’ll emerge from the experience cleansed.

In that regard, “Beatlebone” is more an existential novel than a rock ‘n’ roll one, and it’s so good for so long that it doesn’t really matter when it unravels in the end. Barry, whose previous novel, “City of Bohane,” won the International Dublin Literary Award, is a genius of the language, teasing out impressionistic riffs that channel emotion into words. Here he is on Lennon as a parent: “By night he’ll creep in on tiptoes to watch the child sleeping. There is something in the way that he breathes that stops all the time inside. … He stays as quiet as he can, he hardly takes a breath — at last the past is dropping away — and the kid unglues an eye — so silently — and has a peep and he takes him up to love and they stand together in the blue of the night above the streets and park, and the city for half a moment is as quiet as it ever can be, and they are doomed in all the usual ways.”

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There’s more than a little Dylan Thomas in such a passage, which is only appropriate, since he was a poet Lennon admired. More to the point is how time opens in that final sentence, as if it were finite and infinite at once.

This is the tension that drives Lennon’s sojourn to Ireland, a landscape Barry frames as haunted, rich with ghosts, and where the singer finds himself in the company of a local named Cornelius, who has his own relationship to the ineffable. The plot of the novel, such as it is, involves their quest to reach Dorinish, which sits among more than 300 other small islands, indistinguishable to any significant extent.

“Cornelius?” Lennon asks, as they drift across the water in a leaky boat.

“Yes, John?”

“What I’m thinking now is … you know, the first island we come to?”

“I’m thinking the same way.”

What Barry is evoking is a sense of the mysterious, the belief that nothing is for certain, not even the physicality of the land. His Lennon seeks purity through solitude, but this just leads to a different sort of madness, the madness of the solitary soul.

“He wants to break the line and he wants to sing his black … heart out and speak at last his own true mind,” Barry writes — an aspiration he personalizes, movingly and unexpectedly, by inserting a chapter that describes both his research and his profound isolation, which mirrors that of the Lennon he creates. It’s a daring choice, and it opens “Beatlebone” by asking us to consider the relationship between author and character — who is less Lennon than the refracted image of a certain fantasy, the figure Barry longs for him to be.

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Still, for all the tour-de-force-ness of such a revelation, in its aftermath the novel starts to drift. Lennon leaves Ireland to make an album called (yes) “Beatlebone”: “some kind of occult … jazz thing” in which he “has gone off to the vaults of darkness again.” It’s the kind of record I imagined when I learned, in summer 1980, that he had returned to the studio. Yet the album he did record, “Double Fantasy,” contains almost none of that troubling darkness, which causes us to confront again the blurry line between reality and fiction, between the way things happen and the way we might wish they had.

This is both the beauty and the flaw of “Beatlebone,” which insists on rendering our heroes as mythic figures, even (or especially) if they are imperfect, trapped between public image and private pain. The Lennon Barry gives us is not a Beatle but rather just a human, lost in the immensity of the infinite. “Moony types,” he notes, “get drawn to bodies of water. … It’s because when you look out to sea, you’re looking at [an] … infinitude. … An infinitude … of nothingness.”

What can we do in the face of all that silence? What will save us from its pull? The message of this beautiful, if inconsistent, novel, is nothing will. "[T]he world,” Lennon sings here, “is still the far-away evening, as hushed and hollow as an empty church, and we can be quiet now if we want to be.”

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Beatlebone: A Novel

Kevin Barry

Doubleday: 320 pp., $24.95

david.ulin@latimes.com

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