****Beatlebone

John Lennon

painting by Ryan Oyer; photo: Melissa Bowman, creative commons license

By Kevin Barry – Last Friday, award-winning Irish novelist Kevin Barry was in Princeton to read from his novel Beatlebone. You may recall, as I did not, that John Lennon bought a small island off far Western Ireland and made two visits there. Beatlebone describes a fictional third visit in 1978, two years before he was murdered.

He’s being hounded by media and his own creative demons, and he just wants to get away to this unpeopled dot in the ocean, though heavily and loudly populated by gulls and terns, and slick with guano. He has a driver, Cornelius O’Grady, who began, Barry said, as a peripheral character, but as sometimes happens, became vitally important to the book. He’s John’s guide to the mysteries of Ireland, his goad, and his sounding board.

Much of the book is their dialog, which Barry delivered deliciously:

About my situation, Mr. O’Grady?

Yes?

I really don’t need a f— circus right now. The most important thing is no one knows I’m out here.

Cornelius fills his mug from a silver pot and runs his eyes about the room.

John, he says, half the newspapermen in Dublin are after piling onto the Westport train.

Oh for f—sake!

But we aren’t beat yet. The train’s an hour till it’s in. We’ll throw a shape lively.

The lack of punctuation requires a little extra reader attention, but it isn’t difficult to follow. What you have is a surreal picture of a 38-year-old man who’s known incredible highs and inevitable lows, seen-all, done-all, who just needs to get out from under the weight of himself for a while. He’s a creative genius tied up in his own knots. On the island, he hopes to find inspiration for his next great album, Beatlebone.

I asked Barry how he captured Lennon’s voice. He said it was a real job of work and it took him about a year. He listened to and transcribed an awful lot of You-Tube videos. Lennon “could go from light to dark, from playful to paranoia, all in one sentence.” And because readers of the book are likely to have some sense of Lennon’s manner of speaking, that voice had to be convincing. And, he said, “the difficulty of the project created part of the attraction.” That perverse Irish nature at work, bringing us gifts.

As Steve Earle said in a laudatory review in The New York Times, “Only a literary beast, a daredevil wholly convinced he was put on this planet to write, would ever or should ever attempt to cast a person as iconic as John Lennon as a character in a tale of his own invention.”

Kevin Barry’s previous novels have all won awards, and Beatlebone won the 2015 Goldsmiths Prize for literature that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities for the novel form.” Although he lives in County Sligo, currently he’s teaching creative writing as the Burns Scholar at Boston College. His presentation was part of the fine series sponsored by Princeton University’s Fund for Irish Studies.

Get Your Irish On

Belfast, Writer's Square

Writer’s Square, Belfast (copyright, Albert Bridge; reused under creative commons license)

Ireland has produced so many familiar writers, from James Joyce and Oscar Wilde to more current classics, like Frank McCourt and Angela’s Ashes. For St. Patrick’s Day, Barnes & Noble assembled a short list of contemporary authors who keep the country’s storytelling traditions going. Here are three of theirs and two of mine:

  • Colm Tóibín – “a living link to Irish history,” from his grandfather’s arrest during the Easter Rising (its centenary is this year) to his father’s affiliation with the IRA. Best known to American audiences is his novel Brooklyn, made into a wonderful 2015 film, reviewed here.
  • Neil Jordan, novelist and screenwriter (known best for the 1992 movie, The Crying Game). “A clear, poetic style.”
  • Tana French, the award-winning “First Lady of Irish Crime” is a master of twisty plots with deep psychological resonance. I read her Broken Harbor in 2013, and especially admired her unforgettable depiction of a mentally unbalanced character.
  • Glenn Patterson, whose novel The International (review) has been called “The best book about the Troubles ever written,” and it isn’t about bloodshed and betrayal at all.
  • Adrian McKinty, who also writes about Belfast and its residents and expats, profiled here. Great humor. I’ve listened to three of them, and Gerard Doyle’s audio narration is sublime!

No blarney here!

Brooklyn

Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn

Not in the mood for the stunning violence of The Revenant or the bitter racism of The Hateful Eight? Nor the angst of Carol or The Danish Girl? Nor the special effects weaponry of Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Here’s a nice, sweet historical movie about first love, the pains and rewards of immigration, and the choices we make.

Brooklyn (trailer), as directed by John Crowley, with a script by Academy Award nominee Nick Hornby (based on Colm Tóibín’s book of the same name), reminds us that leaving home is a lonely choice, even when it’s the best choice a person has. (And so much harder before email, skype, and budget air fares.)

When clear-eyed Eilis Lacey (played by Academy Award nominee Saoirse Ronan) leaves Ireland to come to America in the early 1950s, she has no confidence that she’ll ever see Ireland again. In a bit of cross-cultural serendipity, she meets Italian plumber Tony (Emory Cohen), and each is charmed with the other and the cultures they come from. Watching her try to learn to eat spaghetti under the tutelage of her bantering roommates is splashily funny. But when tragedy at home calls Eilis back to Ireland, she does go, despite the length, cost, and difficulty of the journey. Once home, the inducements to stay mount.

Brooklyn—which was also an Academy Award nominee for Best Picture—has moments with “a resonance that extends far beyond its immediate circumstances,” says Glenn Kenny for Rogerebert.com. It’s a beautiful, big-hearted movie that will leave you smiling, Irish eyes or no.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 98%; audiences 90%.

Bonus treat: an interview with Colm Tóibín and Alice Walker (The Color Purple) about the translation of their novels into film, including a guide to pronouncing his name.

*****The International: A Novel of Belfast

hotel bar, barman

(photo: shankar s, creative commons license)

“If I had known history was to be written that Sunday in the International Hotel I might have made an effort to get out of bed before teatime,” writes Daniel Hamilton, an 18-year-old Belfast bartender and narrator of Glenn Patterson’s novel The International. The history he refers to is the meeting to launch the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), an organization formed to focus attention on discrimination against Northern Ireland’s mostly Catholic nationalist minority. We call the succeeding three decades of violence and despair The Troubles, and The International “is the best book about the Troubles ever written,” according to Irish author and Booker-Prize-winner Anne Enright.

Funny thing is, there’s almost no overt violence in this book, apart from the fact it’s set in a busy bar with lots of coming and going and football on the telly and political shenanigans where money changes hands and gay men and straight women hoping to meet someone and people who should have stopped drinking hours before ordering another and weddings upstairs in the hotel, at one of which the clergyman plays an accordion. In other words, enough latent violence in reserve to keep the average semi-sober person on his toes.

The principal action of the novel takes place during on Saturday evening, January 28, 1967, the night before the big meeting, larded with Danny Hamilton’s memories of other times and barroom encounters. His minutely observed portrayal of everyday life as seen from behind the bar is heartbreaking when, with the lens of hindsight, the reader knows how soon it will all be gone, sucked into a slowly unwinding catastrophe of bombs and gunfire.

Patterson’s writing style reflects the unadorned—and often wryly humorous—worldview of his young narrator, yet see how precisely he captures the sense of a departing wedding guest:

“You look like you enjoyed yourself,” I said.
He sucked air through his pursed lips and held a hand to his heart as though to say that any more enjoyment would have killed him.
“That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?” I said.
“Great people,” he said and the hand on his heart became his word of honour. “Not a bit of side to a one of them.”

The novel’s only violence of the kind that would become all-too-familiar happened somewhat before the book begins, when four Catholic barmen from The International were shot leaving another bar, late at night. One died, creating the opening that Daniel filled.

The quote at the top of this piece opens the book, and these words about the barmen who died, Peter Ward, also age 18, help close it:

I can’t tell you much else about him, except that those who knew him thought the world of him. He is, I realise, an absence in this story. I wish it were not so, but guns do that, create holes which no amount of words can fill.

The Author

Princeton University, through the Fund for Irish Studies, brought Belfast author Glenn Patterson to campus last week. He talked about how his writing emphasizes history and politics and his deep sense of place. And, he said that “when history looks back at our present, it will see that what we thought we were at and what we were at, really, were entirely different.” This theme is borne out in a postscript to The International, where Patterson recounts going back to newspaper archives from 1967 to see what they’d made of the NICRA’s formation, and the answer was “scarcely nothing.” In that gap, the novel grew.

Charming, disarming, Patterson told stories and read from several works, include four of the five short literary interludes he was commissioned to write for Philip Hammond’s “Requiem for the Lost Souls of the Titanic,” which premiered April 14, 2012, the 100th anniversary of the night the ship—built in Belfast—sank. I regret I couldn’t find them online to share with you; they were extraordinary.

It still being (barely) March, the month of St. Patrick’s Day, also see: Glenn Patterson’s top 10 books about Belfast.