Kevin Barry has accepted he will never write the great American Jewish novel but he still spends nights fretting about what John Lennon’s widow Yoko On might think of Beatlebone. He explains all to Caroline O’Doherty.
SURREAL is a word often used to describe Kevin Barry’s fiction but there are times his own life provides competition.
Since publication of his first novel, City of Bohane, he gets awestruck Americans sending him photographs of themselves dressed up for Halloween as futuristic feuding gang members plucked from its pages.
“It’s bananas. It’s kind of got a reputation in the US as a real stoner book so they come up to me at readings giving me bits of weed,” he explains.
Things have only got stranger with his current release. “It’s been very peculiar to find myself lying in the bed in Sligo in my frequent insomniac nights going, ‘Jesus, what’s Yoko Ono going to think of my novel?’” he says. “With good cause,” he adds, a flash of fresh anxiety in his voice.
The good cause would be because in Beatlebone, Barry has had the audacity to hop inside the head of none other than John Lennon.
He presents the artist in 1978 in a kind of artistic locked-in syndrome, struggling with writer’s block, self doubt, a past he hasn’t quite come to terms with, and a present plied with the pressures of international superstardom, desperately trying to get to his own wave-lashed island off the west coast of Ireland so that he can scream his frustrations to the Atlantic winds.
It sounds far-fetched but what makes the story all the more intriguing is that it is based, loosely and liberally, on truth.
In 1967, when The Beatles were getting their psychedelia on, Lennon bought Dorinish Island, one of scores of little rugged patches of land in Clew Bay off the Mayo coast, with notions of establishing a commune on it as a haven for hippy artists and free thinkers where he could feel at ease away from the madness of the commercial record industry.
In 1978, in the middle of a real-life five-year fallow period for the then New York based Beatle, he just might have had Dorinish on his mind.
Barry, who moved to rural Sligo eight years ago but only learned to drive last year, used to cycle for miles in summer and occasionally found himself looking out over the bay wondering which had been Lennon’s patch.
Gradually, it dawned on him that this “weird little piece of lost cultural information” that occasionally visited his brain was ripe for transforming into a novel.
“I was immediately traumatised by this because it’s a very risky thing to take such an iconic figure and land him into one of your mad stories out in Mayo,” he says.
Hence the sleepless nights fretting about Yoko. He probably has little to worry about. Lennon’s romantic notions ran aground and while he did install a short-lived commune on Dorinish, there are records of him visiting only twice.
“It’s a beautiful place but it’s incredibly loud. It’s a nesting site for terns so there are these enormous eggs all over the place and the terns are very protective and they dive bomb you.
“It’s kind of freaky and it’s a really raucous, loud, screechy place. It would be the last place in the world where you’d build a meditative retreat.” So there’s little fact for Barry to misrepresent. John Lennon himself said “Imagine” and that’s just what Barry has done.
To tease out what’s going on in Lennon’s head, he introduces Cornelius O’Grady, the local fixer, whose task it is to protect Lennon from the creeping press and keep a lid on his internal pressure cooker long enough for the seas to calm for a safe crossing to the island.
Cornelius, written like he’s hewn out of the local rock, is nonetheless a philosophical sort, given to reading meaning into the landscape and reflecting on suicidal cows driven mad by the relentless wind.
Their conversations are comic, dark, coarse, tender and frequently surreal as Lennon is prised open by Cornelius’ child
like probing of this curiosity left in his charge.
“Why’s it you want to go to this little island?
Because I want to be that fucking lonely I’ll want to fucking die.
Cornelius jaws on this for a bit and winces, and he nods it through – he is at length satisfied.
I have you now, he says.” Barry makes Cornelius into Lennon’s ‘reality instructor’, to borrow a phrase from one of his favourite novelists, Saul Bellow.
“This is the character who tells you, this is how it is, this is how you get through. I’ve always loved those kind of characters,” he says.
One thing Barry was determined to present authentically was Lennon’s voice and he studied hours of footage of interviews to give the written word the language and pacing of Lennon’s peculiar mix of working class Liverpudlian and transatlantic artist. But although the ‘sound’ and, he hopes, some of the thinking, is personal to Lennon, the story could be anyone’s.
“It struck me about half way through that it was a very simple, old-fashioned novel. It was kind of Don Quixote. It was John on a quest to get to this island and the island isn’t important at all of course — he’s just trying to get some place. It’s about needing to be somewhere — physically or mentally — other than where you are.
"And it’s about how to make something, how to make a record, how to make a book, how to make anything creative and how you have to go into your own stuff and your own dark material to get there.” It’s about Barry too. Two-thirds the way into the story, he steps out of it for a spell and tells how he came to write it, revealing along the way a pain he carried from the age of ten when his mother died.
“Suddenly unmoored, I needed to accommodate the event within the realm of normalcy, and to do so, it needed to be relegated to the back of the mind, to the dark recesses, and as a child you cannot tell what work it will do once planted back there, you cannot predict the ways in which it will pin you down and mark you always,” he writes.
When he set off to find Dorinish, he found he too wanted to scream. “It did surprise me when this kind of very emotional material started to appear..” Barry has also endured the frustration of creative efforts coming to nought. Writing fiction since his 20s while maintaining day jobs as a journalist both in his native Limerick and latterly with the Irish Examiner, he only achieved his first published work, a short story collection, in 2007 aged 37.
In between, he tried imprisoning himself in a caravan in Allihies and later moved to Bute, Montana, convinced he was going to write “the next great Jewish American novel”. Allihies produced a “terrible” book he swears he’ll never show to a living soul and Bute taught him that he would never write a Jewish American novel.
“I learned there was no short-cut. You have to keep writing. You have to make it the main focus of your day, every day. I’m at the desk seven days a week, mornings at least. I’ll try ten or 12 short stories a year. Only one or two will be sent out but I’ll finish all of them because you need to build discipline.”
He has allowed himself a break of sorts this past year, producing with his wife, Olivia Smith, what they intend will become an annual anthology of new Irish fiction, essays, reportage, interviews and photography.
The first edition of Winterpages.ie is out next month and contains a diverse range of contributors. Among the names, there’s Paul Muldoon, Belinda McKeon and Donal Ryan. And also Tommy Tiernan and The Rubberbandits. Surreal could be pulled out of the description jar once again.
Kevin Barry will read from Beatlebone on Thursday next at 7 pm in Waterstone’s, St Patrick’s St, Cork. Tickets are free but booking in store is essential
Canongate, €17.99; ebook, €13.64
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