Writing in 1964, a perceptive critic reviewing John Lennon’s first book observed that “when John Lennon sings ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,’ he is wishing he could bite it.”
Kevin Barry puts it this way in “Beatlebone,” one of the best novels I’ve read this year for many reasons, not least being Barry’s ability to actually say something new about Lennon while also telling each of us a great deal about ourselves:
“Sometimes he is very charming and funny and light; at other times there is a darkness evident, and an impatience that can bleed almost into bitterness. He can transition from fluffy to spiky very quickly, even within the course of the same sentence.”
Barry explores the reasons why by imagining a lonely 1978 pilgrimage taking Lennon to the uninhabited island off the west coast of Ireland that Lennon had purchased a decade earlier.
Things in Lennon’s life in 1978 seemingly couldn’t have been better: He was drinking less, eating a macrobiotic diet, back together with Yoko Ono and spending lazy days with his young son while baking bread. But in running his life along such “tidy lines,” Barry’s Lennon finds himself unable to write and worries “that all this happiness is going to rot” his brain.
What this Lennon eventually figures out is that he’s come to Ireland because such journeys are “what you’ve got to put yourself through to make anything worthwhile. It’s about going to the dark places and using what you find there.”
With the help of a mysterious local named Cornelius, what Lennon finds is that for all he’d written about his past, he’d never truly understood why it haunts him — or why he was still traumatized by the death of Julia, the beloved mother he lost in a freak accident when he was just 17. As Lennon ruefully admits toward journey’s end, “you never get past what happens to you when you’re 17.”
That was my own age when I heard Lennon was shot, while driving home from a Bruce Springsteen concert; I wore a black armband for weeks. I risk this intrusion because it’s true to Barry’s own: a long swerve toward autobiography — right in the middle of his story — through which he gives us a portrait of an artist trying to sketch a portrait of an artist.
Searching for John Lennon, it becomes clear that Barry is as terrified as Lennon himself that the past is forever receding beyond reach. As a result, every current moment is shadowed by the thought that it won’t last — underscoring that each of our moments brings us closer to the final one. For the Lennon we meet in “Beatlebone,” Julia lies “on the dark side of every passing moment.”
“Reality, John, tends not to hang around,” a talking seal tells him one night, in a book that’s also filled with ghosts and apparitions.
“The 1970s is by now essentially an historical fiction,” Barry reflects, lamenting how time and distance forever mediate our experience of what that decade was like.
Unless, that is, one writes like Barry.
“If we can get the voices right,” he reflects, “the fiction might hold for a while at least” — allowing us to attain what Lennon here continually seeks: the ability to “hold the moment” rather than obsessing over all the ways every moment can go awry. Or confronting the painful truth that no moment will last and that every love story must end.
Barry consistently gets the voices right in “Beatlebone,” much of it presented through dialogue that unspools on the page like a play script and proves Cornelius’ point: Even if one can only see 10 percent of what’s out there, one can hear everything. If one knows how to listen.
“Do you think you can hear him still?” Barry asks us, early on. After finishing this terrific novel, my answer is a resounding, life-affirming “yes.”