Tom Barbash’s arresting new novel takes place over a year and a half, from August 1979 to December 1980, in the roiling life of its eponymous New York family. The narrator of “The Dakota Winters,” the 23-year-old middle child, Anton Winter, is so decent and self-denying that we know from the beginning he won’t be the hero of his own life. In fact, he has ceded that role to a powerful, secular trinity: his father, Buddy; his home in the famed Upper West Side apartment building, the Dakota; and, most affectingly, his Dakota neighbor John Lennon.
In “The Dakota Winters,” Barbash has vividly captured the end times feeling of this period in America and has populated his sad and funny tale with a highly engaging mix of real people and fictional characters who take us to its ordained and dreaded finale, Lennon’s death. At the time, New York City was crumbling, beset by transit and garbage strikes. Rioters had set Miami on fire. Jimmy Carter had failed to secure the release of the Iran hostages. As Lennon tells Anton: “Best to move slowly right now, Yoko says. It’s Mercury Retrograde.”
The book’s engine is conversation, used to great effect. Barbash’s characters talk all the time. It isn’t that they don’t act or think; it’s that they act and think out loud — thoughtfully, humorously, movingly.
The novel opens with a letter to Anton from Buddy, “a.k.a. Dad,” taking center stage as usual. Anton is in Gabon with the Peace Corps, hospitalized after a near-fatal bout of malaria. Buddy, a celebrated talk show host, is recovering from a nervous breakdown that took place on national television in front of millions of viewers. Not one to recover quietly in a yellow room, Buddy reports the public response. “Everyone has his or her theory about what I’ve been through.” Some ask: “Didn’t you use to be Buddy Winter?” Phil Donahue calls it Buddy’s “‘Razor’s Edge’ journey.”
When Anton, still in recovery, returns from Gabon, Buddy, plotting his resurrection, asks him to work as his sidekick and also, it’s plain, his alter ego. Anton agrees, sucked in by Buddy’s charm and charisma, shining on him after his years in the shadows. Buddy is at his most seductively charming with strangers. In taxis, he sits in the front seat and interviews the drivers, drawing out insights they didn’t know they had. Anton thinks of his parents as the husband and wife in the “Thin Man” movies: witty, glamorous and, tellingly (though he doesn’t say it), childless.
Still, Anton has an interest in reviving Buddy’s career. After all, as Buddy’s son he gets to live in the Dakota and hang with John Lennon.
Lennon was probably the most famous inhabitant of a building that has housed many famous people, including Leonard Bernstein, Rosemary’s baby and Boris Karloff, a previous occupant of the Winters’ apartment. The building itself is a New York celebrity, with its brooding Gothic front, its water-powered elevators, its tenement-like upper floors occupied by “the Leftovers,” the servants and mistresses left behind when their employers moved out. Describing it to a friend, Anton is quick to say it isn’t a “snobby place,” more like “a European village — in, say, Luxembourg.”
Anton meets Lennon in the Dakota and teaches him to sail. A friendship grows and Lennon takes his young neighbor on a life-altering sailing trip to Bermuda. Like everyone else in this novel, they spend a lot of time talking. Barbash has given Lennon a captivating voice, catching his cadences and playfulness, as well as his astuteness. Midway through the novel, Lennon tells Anton he’s his father’s “sodding Cyrano de Bergerac.” Toward the end, as Anton struggles to break from Buddy, Lennon blesses him with a rock baptism: “A year ago you were dying of malaria in a rancid hospital bed. Now look at you. I’ve sprinkled you with Beatle dust.”
Barbash has sprinkled “The Dakota Winters” with Beatle dust. Lennon is alive in its pages.