By Larry Kirwan
Published April 2003
Date Reviewed: September 30, 2003
Originally reviewed in: The Daily Cardinal
The Beatles. No musical group has ever swept the world the way these four men did in the 1960s. With their youthful charisma and fresh talent, the Beatles led a revolution in popular music and culture that is still felt today.
Since their official breakup in 1970, there has been endless talk by fans of a reunion, but few ever think about a darker possibility: What would the world be like if the Beatles had never existed? What if some cataclysm had driven them apart before the world could hear them? And what would happen if the four got together again after the world passed them by? These are the questions addressed by Larry Kirwan, playwright and rock musician, in the darkly comic novel “Liverpool Fantasy.”
The story begins at Abbey Road Studios in 1962. Parlophone Records is willing to sign the Beatles to a contract, but only if their first single is “Till There Was You.” John Lennon feels it should be his composition “Please Please Me,” and is violently opposed to the studio’s choice, which he refers to as a “nursery crime.”
Paul McCartney, on the other hand, feels they need to take the opportunity as it presents itself. When the record company refuses to budge, John walks out, with George Harrison and Ringo Starr following. Paul stays behind, and the Beatles come to an end before they could ever take off.
The story then fast-forwards to 1987-exactly 25 years after the group’s breakup over the first single. Paul is now the Las Vegas entertainer Paul Montana, suffering from a collapsing career and failed marriages. Wishing to rebuild his life, he heads home to Liverpool, only to find a changed world. John is now surly and misanthropic, bitterly drinking away each day. George is a lonely priest recovering from a nervous breakdown and Ringo is reduced to living off his wife’s earnings, feeding his love for music by sitting in sporadically with other bands.
Liverpool is a shadow of its former self, dominated by the fascist National Front-a group to which John’s son Julian belongs. It is Paul’s hope to rebuild the Beatles, but 25 years of broken dreams cannot be easily fixed.
Kirwan has an almost uncanny gift for transporting the reader into a Liverpool broken from years of neglect. One can almost see the winding streets with their mud and rust, and smell the alcohol and smoke in the bars where the aged rockers bemoan their lost dreams. John’s house is a fantastic stage for this drama, with the empty beer bottles and scratchy LPs beautifully defining a life unlived.
The true marvel of this book is the way the Beatles are portrayed. Kirwan paints a very different picture of them, their youthful spirits blunted by years of disappointment.
Readers can practically hear the musicians: George’s soft voice holds a brittle edge when speaking of opportunities lost, while Ringo’s quiet country accent seems more mournful than ever. Paul’s melodic tones are desperate, his Vegas facade worn away when the past comes surging back. Yet they all pale beside the caustic John Lennon, his bitter curses directed against friends and family alike, voicing what may have been: “We could have been a lot more than musicians … turned the world upside-fucking-down!”
“Liverpool Fantasy” is a bittersweet work that will appeal to all who pick it up. Readers with little exposure to the group will enjoy the cutting dialogue and defined characters, but to Beatles fans it will be the definitive work of fiction on the group. The description of the reunion will give any fan chills, and Lennon’s witticisms will have them laughing at first read. Both sorrowful and humorous, it is a brilliant novel of friendship, music, love, family and everything in between.
(Fun fact: my first printed book review ever. They gave me a full page – not bad for a freshman.)