Kevin Barry: ‘This is a book about trying to make something’

In Clew Bay with John Lennon and a cast of nut jobs – ‘Beatlebone’, winner of the Goldsmiths Prize, is far from Bohane


Kevin Barry was a little nervous when he realised that the central character of his latest novel was going to be John Lennon. He “brickin’ it”, he says, a little hungover one morning in Dublin. “Absolutely f***ing brickin’ it.”

Beatlebone, Barry’s first novel since the success of City of Bohane, in 2011, plonks John Winston Ono Lennon (MBE) down in Co Mayo at the tail end of the 1970s. He’s trying to get to Dorinish, the island he’d bought in Clew Bay 10 years earlier, but things aren’t working out. The press have figured out that he’s in the country and are sailing around the bay, trying to find him.

Cornelius O’Grady, his driver, enlists himself as a mix of mentor, spiritual guide and day-trip chaperone. Together they explore the wilder side of the west of Ireland, bombing along mountain roads in a rickety van blaring Ray Lynam cassettes. The local chorus of malcontents, hippies and straight-up nut jobs provides a colourful supporting cast.

For all the unlikely situations John and Cornelius find themselves in, the conversations between the pair are the engine of the book. Cornelius flitters between rural savage and rural sage, while John wrestles with a lifetime’s worth of personal demons. Barry’s pitch-perfect ear for the rhythms and quirks of speech allows the unstoppable flow of their voices to carry the book along, one dialogue after another. It appears seamless, but Barry says it took a long time to come together, requiring him to “really graft at to get it anywhere where it was convincing”. This week the novel won the Goldsmiths Prize, with the jury hailing its “compulsive narrative” that “becomes a startling and original meditation on the uncanny relationship of a writer to his character”.

“When someone praises you for really natural dialogue, it’s b*****ks, really, because there’s no such thing,” says Barry with a laugh. “I tried f***ing everything under the sun: first person, second person, third person; past tense, present tense, future tense. Eventually what I did was I said, ‘F*** it. Do them all.’ Just throw it all in. Throw the kitchen f***ing sink at it, and hopefully it’ll seem to the reader like you’re being lowered down into this cauldron of a brain, of a great creative artist at a troublesome time for him.”

Reading Beatlebone is certainly a frenzied experience. It zips along at Barry’s usual pace – a sprint with a certain swagger, like doing 90 on a twisting road. It slips between all sorts of forms, one minute a sort of dramatisation of post-Freudian primal-scream therapy, the next a lyrical evocation of what it might have been like to get blind drunk at some backwoods síbín way up in the Mayo mountains in 1978. It operates at all times on what Barry calls “the cusp of believability”. As he says, it’s a risky place to be.

Perhaps Barry’s biggest gamble is the insertion of a nonfictional essay, detailing his own travels around Clew Bay, his visits to Achill and Dorinish, his growing interest in Lennon’s story and the parallels with his own life. This essay, which sits in the middle of the book, transforms it from an entertainingly incongruous story into something deeper, bringing out the heart and soul of the book. When the story returns to Clew Bay and 1978, it isn’t the same story. It has become personal: its shade has changed; you see something very real is at stake.

“I started thinking to myself, Can I just walk out the door of a novel for 8,000 words and then hop back in?” Barry says. “Will they go with it? The one thing I always trust in is, if you’re giving the reader a good enough time you can go anywhere. The reader is, hopefully, enjoying the story, going along, rattling along with the two lads in the van in this kind of madcap world, but I hope it shifts it up a level as well and makes it apparent that this is a book about trying to make something. About trying to make a record, about the creative life or struggle. That’s what the book is about.”

Torturous disillusion

“There’s no shortcut, which is the horrible realisation,” Barry says of this process, speaking for himself and his fictional Lennon. “You have to go through the whole ‘Urgh, this is going terrible’ kind of stuff, where you’re almost antagonistic to yourself about it, giving out to yourself. That’s all fundamental to it. And that becomes what John is going on with. Trying to come up with a new record. It’s going to be a disaster: ‘They’re going to do me up like a kipper.’ ”

Lennon’s roots – his Lancashire home and his Irish-immigrant, pub-singer parents – add a subtle but haunting mood to the story. John remembers them in reveries, hating and loving and blurring all the lines between. Much of the book’s tone comes from these confused, inescapable memories of what happens when “Irish pathos and sentimentality and drunkenness settle in the north of England in those kind of bleak cities”. John’s distress emerges from the feeling that he has nowhere left to run, no path around the obstacles that his past has put in his way.

Cornelius indulges and rebuffs this lachrymose sentimentality, sometimes drawing John out of his shell, other times telling him to get over himself. He has his own dead father to think about, his own absence to poke at. This constant negotiation with the past, with death and the questions that can never be answered, is the dominant sound in the “cauldron of a brain” that we’ve been thrown into. Cornelius, John, Kevin: by the book’s end it’s hard to separate them. There’s so much emotion flying around you’d almost be embarrassed for them.

“I’m really very interested lately in the bits that make me shudder with embarrassment when I read them,” says Barry. “Usually because they’re f***ing true. That’s why it’s embarrassing for you. You find as a writer that you circle around your fundamental stuff for years and years before you’re ever prepared to go anywhere near it. You try to write it at a remove. I set City of Bohane in the 2050s, this imaginary world, when it’s really about growing up in Limerick and Cork. Just to be able to present it, I have to put it at this remove.

“And Beatlebone is about ‘death hauntedness’ and losing a parent early in life. That’s what the novel is all about, really, the whole thing of trying to create as a bulwark against those feelings. It’s years before you can get the guts up, really. Writers circle around their families for years before they go in there. Again, it’s the kind of thing with no shortcutting. You have to keep going to the desk every day and slowly building up the reserves of whatever it is you need to do to get the stuff down.”

Beatlebone is published by Canongate

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