It has been said that if Roddy Doyle and Nick Cave could procreate, Kevin Barry would be the result. I can see that. Beneath that bright and thoughtful exterior, there lies a naughty schoolboy with a profound sense of the absurd.
Kevin’s short story collection There are Little Kingdoms won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature in 2007. This was followed by the novel, The City of Bohane. Now comes his latest novel, Beatlebone.
He reminds me of the character in that Kris Kristofferson song, The Pilgrim, Chapter 33:
He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction
Taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.
Kevin Barry seems very much a walking contradiction. Thoughtful and profound, yet witty and irreverent. Kinetic, yet still. A surrealist grounded in reality. He’s a living Escher drawing. What you see depends very much on your point of view.
On the other hand, Kevin seems to have a knack for choosing the right direction, whether it’s shattering the rules of fiction writing, or opting to live in a converted police station in Sligo so he’d have somewhere to keep his books. Were it not for the books, the weight and bulk of them, you suspect he’d be an itinerant storyteller, wandering from town to town like one of the ancient fili. (That means poets, you Sassenachs.) Certainly, wanderlust seems to lie in the marrow of his long bones. Much of his talk was about his travels on his bike.
His talk? Oh, didn’t I mention? The man himself was in Kells last week, guest of the Hay Festival. As well as reading excerpts from his new novel, Beatlebone, he read a story from his first anthology, There Are Little Kingdoms, and chatted about his work and his inspiration.
Kevin likes to get on his bike and follow the wind to various places, mostly west and south. He has a strong sense of place and geography often hands him a story. More than the rocks and rivers, though, his stories lie in the people who populate these towns and cities. The tales are sparked by the words the use and the way they use them. In some places the language captures his ear the way light captures an artist’s eye. Then the story becomes “like a wasp trapped in your brain.”
When he started to write Beatlebone Kevin had no intention of, well, writing a novel. The idea was terrifying. Novels, he says, are hard to write. Quite. This novel started out as a radio essay. Then it became a short story. Then the notes written on beer mats and detritus began to pile up and turned into dialogue. Whatever plans Kevin had, the work had its own ideas.
Beatlebone brings John Lennon back to Dorinish Island in Clew Bay, which he bought in 1967 for £1,550. The novel takes place in 1978. John has returned to… Well, I’m not sure what, to be honest. Then again, John himself doesn’t seem to know. In any case, the story isn’t so much about his being on the island as it is about his getting there. Accompanied by an Irish driver-spirit guide by the name of Cornelius O’Grady, this story is more about the journey.
The novel, a slender 50,000 words distilled from an initial 400,000 is whimsical, funny, moving and profound. Not unlike the author, then. Listening to Kevin Barry reading it, you can see Clew Bay and the fragile, befuddled former-Beatle trying to get to grips with the location and himself.
Kevin reads well. Not all writers do. Maybe he’s not as theatrical as Patrick McCabe, but his prose is a perfect match for his voice. He has the comedians’ sense of timing. He’ll pause at just the right spot and look up at you. Let the point settle. Then he delivers the follow-up punch to cheers and applause. They don’t teach this skill in your writing classes, more’s the pity.
He talks about writing on location. About investigating Donegal. Accent leads to everything else. Sligo, he says, is “the land of the pregnant pause.” Kevin lived in Liverpool for three years (there’s a theme here, if you Beatle fans are paying attention), and he easily captured the language all around him. Less successful was his time in Edinburgh. The accent here defeated him. No doubt some linguistic expert is already planning a paper on the subject.
Many of his stories are inspired by scraps of conversation he hears. For instance, a garrulous woman on a bus inspired a story, The Wintersongs, which he read.
It takes time for your life experience to show up in your writing, Kevin says. Ten years, or so. Curiously, Patrick McCabe made almost the exact same comment a day earlier, though he thought 10-15 years was more like it. That being the case, we can expect Kells to show up in their fiction circa 2026. I hope he finds the Meath accent an inspiration.