John Lennon "Walrus" eyeglass frames are for sale on the Web; Strawberry Fields has become a Tic Tac flavor. The Smart Beatle has been entombed by pop culture and rampant capitalism. There's nothing more to be written about him. It's all been said — but no one said it to Kevin Barry, author of the fab-tastic Beatlebone, a fictional biography that manages to be strange, hilarious and insightful all at once.
Barry's novel gives us a lost Lennon, who at age 37 finds himself in the midst of a nervous breakdown, desperate to reinvigorate his talents and regain the respect of the public. Cocooned in the Dakota apartment building in New York City, he inhabits the role of house husband, takes care of his toddler son, bakes a lot of bread, "eats sushi from cartons and watches the late movies in bed." The world loves him, but the world also wants a pound of his flesh.
The Byrds told the story in their song, "So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star": "The price you paid for your riches and fame/ Was it all a strange game?/ You're a little insane."
The Lennon of Beatlebone qualifies in the insanity department. You have to be very rich or very nuts, or both, to want to possess your own private island. As the action picks up, Lennon has misplaced his, a "drowned drumlin" off the wildly beautiful west coast of Ireland. He bought Dorinish in 1967 and wants to visit again for only the third time. It's now 1978, and a desperate and dispirited Lennon sets out to find out where his island went. He doesn't even remember which drowned drumlin is his.
His chauffeur, traveling companion and guide is the blarney-tongued Cornelius O'Grady, one of Barry's great creations, who brings a darkly comic edge to the journey. "The driver has a high purple colour — madness or eczema — and his nose looks dead and he speaks now in a scolding hush." As a sort of hapless disguise to protect him from rabid fans, the fame-addled singer adopts the worsted suit and Coke-bottle glasses worn by O'Grady's dead father.
Barry absolutely nails the period. The '60s — John's decade, the era he did so much to define — have lingered on in rural Ireland. Primal screamers and crazed cultists abound. Lennon's desires for his quest are simple. "He will spend three days alone on his island. That is all he asks ... John is so many miles from love now and home ... Maybe it is there that he can at last outrun the shadows of his past."
An epiphany arrives in the form of a talking seal on a windswept beach: "Let me see if I can explain things, John," the seal says. Lennon realizes he still has an album in him, one that will be called Beatlebone. In an exalted state of clarity, he "sees the broad sweep — he sees the tiny detail. This is the one that will settle every score."
Will John Lennon get his mojo back? Hallucinatory and beautiful, the language Barry employs to reveal Lennon's inner torment make Beatlebone much more than just a work of fan fiction. "His poor lungs, those tired soldiers. He proceeds on walkabout. Listen for a song beneath the skin of the earth. Seeing as he cannot fucking find one elsewhere. He aims back for the road again. Panicky, yes, but you just keep on walking. And maybe in this way, John, you can leave the past behind."
Oddly, the author steps out from behind the curtain at one point, adding a level of meta to his fiction. He spends a 30-page digression discussing his motivations in writing the novel, his research, his attempt to "spring a story from its places" before he returns to Lennon on the island and, finally, in the studio, making Beatlebone the album.
Beatlebone, the novel, reads as brilliant liner notes for a nervous breakdown, a hip, alternative history for Lennon's lost years. We know John never made a sea mammal-inspired album. We are all too well aware that Mark David Chapman is waiting in the wings. We realize the "John Lennon" in Barry's book is a confection, a creation, a sleight of hand. Yet somehow readers may feel they are getting close to the real flesh-and-blood human. There are places he remembered, and in his life, he loved them all. Perhaps an island in Clew Bay was one of them.
Jean Zimmerman's latest novel, Savage Girl, is out now in paperback. She posts daily at Blog Cabin.