Thursday, December 24, 2015

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

Somewhere in the middle of Beatlebone (AMZ) the author squeezes in an interlude which explains the research that went into authenticating John Lennon's voice for this story, and the history behind Dorinish Island as once owned by the singer. Once you get to this part of the book you may think one of two things: 1) Uh, shouldn't something like this appear at the tail end of the story, like an Afterword?, or 2) Oh, thank God.

This is not to say the prose of Beatlebone will leave your eyes crossed. It's uniquely told, stream of conscious narrative married with rapid exchanges of dialogue, and given the focus of the book it's an appropriate presentation. I think that Barry's interlude in the middle works because it's unexpected, much like the things John experiences in this story, and perhaps unconsciously Barry tipped toward a similar "intermission" gag in the movie Help!

So it's 1978. Lennon hasn't cut a record of original material in about four years. He has a toddler at home and an island on the Western coast of Ireland, bought in the late 60s. He gets the idea if he spends a few days on this deserted floating rock and employs some Primal Scream therapy and chain smoking he'll rejuvenate his creativity. Getting there, though, is half the battle, most of the headache, and all over a trip more surreal than the back-masking on "Strawberry Fields Forever." Seems some of the locals are in no hurry to help John get to where he wants to go. In his de facto guide Cornelius, John find camaraderie and irritation in the same package. Cornelius wants to feed John blood pudding (not on a macrobiotic's menu) and drag him to a pub and help him dodge the press with a quick hideout in a hotel full of "ranters."

John just wants to get to the "fucken" island. What happens from there, a lost "album" spilling from John's mind like coming down from a magnificent high, is at once lyrical and bizarre. Makes you want to go back and find In His Own Write and Spaniard in the Works to see how they compare.

Barry writes in his interlude how he sees most Lennon-centric fiction as "character assassinations." It's easier to do when your subject can't speak up, but Beatlebone aims for an introspective John who doesn't treat everybody like crap. If you're looking for a more traditional narrative this book might drive you nuts, but it's worth the read if you can hold on.

Rating: B

Kathryn Lively did get to cross Abbey Road, but doesn't Scream.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Sinatra: The Chairman by James Kaplan

I hear the term problematic fave often now. It's applied to people largely admired for their achievements, talents, etc., yet for all the praise comes the reminder these people aren't saints. Oh, you like Joe Rock Singer, don't you? You realize he'd trade his first born for a bag of crack in a heartbeat, right? I'm not saying Sinatra would have done that, but as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth it's interesting to see all the tributes and memorials when in the back of some minds there's that voice, and it's not booming out "Come Fly With Me."

It's saying, Well, you know what he was like...

Problematic fave.

I can't say Frank Sinatra was a bad person. He did bad things, many of which are documented in Sinatra: The Chairman (AMZ) and in other bios. He also did many great things, acts of charity and kindness to friends and strangers. After another hundred years I doubt we'll have the man completely figured out.

I'm part Sicilian. I grew up with Sinatra on the stereo during the holidays. Beyond that, my knowledge of the man amounted to sensationalist bytes read in the supermarket tabloids found in my grandmother's house - each anecdote involved Frank in some night club or bar and a waitress getting his drink order wrong.

"I want that broad fired!" he said. And she was. That's how every story ended. I, young and newly feminist, even with little background on the circumstances that resulted in this juicy gossip, sympathized with the women who lost jobs over this and pictured a winding line of sequined dresses and ostrich plumes wrapped around the unemployment office on The Strip. I pictured children of single moms, reliant on tips for food and clothing, wondering over their next meal because some guy who hadn't had a hit record in years got all pissy about extra ice and Jim Beam in his rocks glass instead of Jack.

I vowed if for some reason I got a job as a cocktail waitress I would never serve the man a drink, ever. I take that back. I wanted to purposely get a job as a cocktail waitress and wait for my time. Come at me, old man. 

Closest I ever got to Sinatra was in 1993 at the Coliseum in Jacksonville for one of his last concerts. Still ambivalent about the man and music (come on, early 90s, we were trying to get REM tickets), but we went because Sinatra.

Jon Pinette (RIP) opened with his uproarious act. Shirley Maclaine followed and killed. The Voice finished and it held up, although haltingly. He was slightly stooped and relied on teleprompters, but the crowd cheered him all the while. My mother later said of the show that she saw him tearing up at the last ovation. What the crowd gave, he needed.

And just like that, I felt for him.

~

When I picked up Sinatra: The Chairman I didn't realize it's actually a Part Two. I opened the book to the aftermath of Sinatra's Oscar win for From Here to Eternity and am thinking, "Um, there was stuff before this, right?" Author Kaplan had written Frank: The Voice several years prior, and that book covered the life from birth through his first official "comeback" in the early 50s. What you get in Chairman is the rest of the story, of which twenty or so years are meticulously detailed. This is the genesis of the Clan, what later became the Rat Pack. This is the juxtaposition of professional successes in film and music and personal turmoil (losing Ava, Kennedy snubs). Every drink toasted, every woman romanced, every nerve set on edge due to Sinatra's impatience for retakes and rehearsals.

Chairman clocks in at close to a thousand pages, of which a hundred or so comprise the appendix. I'm reading at a steady clip, more than halfway through and curious how Kaplan handles the rest of Sinatra's life and is there room. If you want to read up on exploits post-Eternity through the mid-60s - struggling to stay relevant during Beatlemania, mediocre vanity film projects, Mia Farrow - you have a goldmine here. It's once the next decade begins, though, Kaplan seems to run out of gas. We go from a steadily detailed bio to a summary of Frank's sunset. Granted, one wouldn't consider the last twenty years of his life the peak of his productivity, but the bio at that point reads like a rapid downhill roll and gives it an all-too abrupt end. Did Kaplan strive to meet the centenary deadline or did he figure we weren't interested in the later years?

I did enjoy this book. My rating would be higher if not for the drop-off in the last quarter of Sinatra's life. I'm sure there's enough material to warrant a third part of the story if Kaplan were willing to commit to it.

Rating: B-

Kathryn Lively once visited Sinatra park in Hoboken. It's nice.