I heard about “Beatlebone” on a RTE (Radio Telefis Eireann) radio review of the best Irish books of 2015. It was rated in the top 10 of the year. The story sounded intriguing: a fictional recreation of John Lennon’s visit to my father’s home county of Mayo, in the west of Ireland. Lennon actually did buy a tiny island, Dorinish, off the coast of Mayo in 1967 for less than 1700 pounds. He only visited it once, but encouraged the “King of the Hippies”, Sid Rawle to establish a commune there in 1970.
In “Beatlebone”, Lennon is desperate to get to Dorinish for three days of solitude, to try to regain his sanity. In the process, he is driven around by a darkly weird Irish driver, Cornelius, who seems intent on delaying more than assisting Lennon. There are interludes in strange country pubs, in Cornelius’s house, at an Achill island hotel, the Amethyst, which is inhabited by three even weirder inhabitants and in a London recording studio, where Lennon is trying to record a new, experimental album.
During the journey, Lennon delves into his childhood, the loss of his parents, his time in an orphanage and his teenage sexual encounters. We learn about ‘scream therapy’ and ‘ranting’. Perhaps the most amusing interlude is his ‘ranting’ session with the inhabitants of the abandoned Amethyst Hotel.
Barry seems to have been influenced by my favourite Irish comic author, Flann O’Brien (I once lived in the basement of the house in Blackrock where Flann had lived), in particular by the brilliant “The Third Policeman” – the driver, Cornelius would fit well alongside the third policeman himself. But for me, Barry does not achieve the construction of a dark, bizarrely humorous world as convincingly as Flann did. The idioms used, both Liverpudlian and Irish don’t always ring true. The characters are not as well drawn. The story is not as funny. Clearly Barry is also channelling James Joyce with lengthy ‘stream of consciousness’ passages.
In the very middle of the book, Barry inserts a chapter of commentary about his own trip to Mayo, which gave him the idea for the book. On coming to this chapter, I thought I’d reached the end of the book, and that this was an author’s endnote. Why he chose to put it in the middle of the book I have no idea. Didn’t work for me.
‘Beatlebone’ held my attention until about halfway through and then I became impatient. Perhaps the mid-book author’s note was disruptive, or perhaps it’s just not that really interesting or well told a story.