Uptown in the ’80s - ‘The Dakota Winters’

The Wall Street Journal
By Thomas Mallon

John Lennon makes an extended guest appearance in this novel about life in the prescrubbed New York of the 1980s.

In 2002, Tom Barbash published a first novel called “The Last Good Chance,” which told of a young man’s efforts to revitalize his beat hometown near Lake Ontario in upstate New York by making it a model of artisanal urban planning, full of restaurants and amusements. The book, complicated by romantic rivalry and municipal corruption, was involving and well-plotted, told from multiple viewpoints and capped with a believable, bravely anticlimactic conclusion. But for all these strengths and a number of memorably lucent passages, “The Last Good Chance” was at least 100 pages too long, beset with repetitive detail (a paragraph-long description of a Sleepytime tea box) and a kind of labored obviousness to much of its pacing and presentation. The minute one of its characters said “I’m so happy,” you knew that she was heading toward misery.

A decade later Mr. Barbash presented an excellent book of short stories, “Stay Up With Me” (2013). Crisp and startling, its 13 pieces explored situations ordinary and extreme, often in prosperous Manhattan or tired Upstate. In “The Break,” a middle-aged mother stalks the restaurant hostess she judges to be an unworthy partner for her college-student son; in “Birthday Girl,” we experience the terror and guilt of a young woman who escapes being charged in a drunk-driving fatality. The stories are virtuosic in their selective detail and compression, their scenic arrangement and voice. They often combine a lightly textured realism with the single emotional impression that Poe offered as the definition of short-fictional success.

One might surmise that Mr. Barbash had found his artistic feet with that book of stories and decided to continue down their concentrated path. Instead, however, for his third work of fiction, he has returned to the novel, a form that just isn’t kind to him; whose amplitude again and again causes his genuine gifts to slacken and dissipate.

“The Dakota Winters,” set in New York during 1980, is narrated by the eponymous Anton Winter, a young man who has returned to the city after Peace Corps service and a serious bout of malaria in west central Africa. Once home, he gets drawn back into the life of his father, Buddy, a famous and now flamed-out TV talk-show host, a mash-up perhaps of Jack Paar and Dick Cavett. Buddy’s high-end guests (Lauren Bacall, RFK) suggest the latter; his general edginess and walkout on a live broadcast more distantly recall the former. At 49, Buddy has suffered a breakdown and lost his show; gone through a phase of solitary wandering and introspective journaling; then returned to his supportive wife, a former actress, and his sons—a nuclear unit whose cleverness and sensitivity sometimes make them a less creepy version of Salinger’s Glass family.

As Anton convalesces, so does Buddy. Father and son begin to pal around New York, going to movies and tourist spots. With the help of Buddy’s agent, they plot the delicate business of a showbiz comeback: maybe getting Buddy seen at some Knicks games; or doing a commercial; then testing deeper waters by guest-hosting Carson.

The Winters live in the Dakota, that huge, brooding, Upper West Side pile with groaning, water-powered elevators, whose spookiness was made legendary by “Rosemary’s Baby,” “which did for the Dakota what Jaws did for the ocean. Your kindly old neighbors were secret Satanists ready to impregnate you with the devil’s spawn. It felt like we lived in a haunted castle, which on the whole I liked because I thought it kept the prim and timid away.” Besides Buddy, the building is also home to another celebrity lying fallow, John Lennon, who has spent “five years of hibernation” there, being homey with Yoko Ono while clutches of fans keep reverent and sometimes delusional vigil outside. The Lennons know the Winters; John and Yoko once did Buddy’s show and clicked with him because “Buddy was buying the version of themselves they were selling.”

Despite the knowing tone of that last phrase, Anton and the author seem to buy it too. The young man teaches the megastar to sail (“I swear I saw a new light shining within him”), and amidst some scarcely believable Beatles-history dialogue—(“You ever miss those days?” “Hamburg? Sure. Touring in the big stadiums, never”)—they voyage to Bermuda, surviving a tempest whose fury is calmed by some of the author’s prose: “The storm raged all that day and into the night.”

The novel adds to the ever-growing body of late-’70s/early-’80s fiction, film and television—from Garth Risk Hallberg’s “City on Fire” (2015) to “54” to “The Deuce”—that often excites an errant longing for a pre-scrubbed New York City. Mr. Barbash’s period touches include the exiled Shah; the miracle-on-ice U.S. Olympic hockey team; and the participation of Anton’s mother, an old friend of Joan Kennedy’s, in Teddy’s primary campaign against Jimmy Carter. Most of the historical context feels authentic; some of it is rote; a few bits are wholly implausible. Teddy Kennedy (who called his wife “Joansie,” not “Joanie”) converses no more believably than Lennon: “The polls are up and down, but the people are tired of a shit economy. They’re tired of runaway inflation, and they want our men and women back from Iran.” Mr. Barbash gives us a lot of pokes in the rib about the era’s crime and violence (“sometimes it felt like we were living through the end of the world”), lest we forget that Mark David Chapman will soon be heading uptown.

With his considerable talents, the author can’t help but do a number of things very well. There are fine scenes (Buddy’s Phil Donahue appearance is pitch perfect) and dead-on observations (G. Gordon Liddy’s memoirs “read like a guidebook on how to be your own abusive father”), but there’s an airless slow motion to the production as a whole. Anton’s amiable first-person voice has its appeal; he often plays a sort of straight-man sidekick to his father and others, and he conducts himself with a nice absence of post-adolescent swagger. But a little of him goes a long way, and on occasion he sounds like an essay. The book might have benefited from the multiple points of view employed in the author’s first novel. Some episodes are overelaborated, and some incidents that we only hear about seem to be lost opportunities: Couldn’t the family-therapy sessions that get mentioned be fully dramatized? By underlining so many of the book’s themes and meanings, the author makes the reader lazy, asks so much less of him than those compacted short stories did.

Like the proverbial thin man trying to get out of a fat one, a half-dozen stories could break free from this book. In Mr. Barbash’s capable hands, their individual effects would be greater than the sum of this novel’s parts. That’s not the case with every writer of fiction, of course, but this one reminds the reader of a ’70s slogan that lingered into the period covered by “The Dakota Winters”: Small is beautiful.

Tom Barbash