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'The Dakota Winters' review: Tom Barbash novel brings alive New York in 1980

"The Dakota Winters" by Tom Barbash (Ecco, December 2018) Photo Credit: Ecco

THE DAKOTA WINTERS, by Tom Barbash, Ecco, 326 pp., $26.99.  

Looking like a Habsburg palace, the Dakota, that sprawling, ornate apartment building just off Central Park West, was once home to Lauren Bacall, Lenny Bernstein, John Lennon and countless other boldface names. The setting for “Rosemary's Baby,” it’s always been both luxurious and mysterious, a kind of fantasy castle for outsiders looking in. Do the rich folks within really inhabit lives worthy of envy?

Tom Barbash’s new novel, “The Dakota Winters,” neither glamorizes nor sneers at what goes on inside. Fame and its discontents are his major themes, as is the tangled father-son bond.

Outside, things are grim. It’s 1980. City subways are desecrated with graffiti, and Broadway and 72nd, where addicts nod, has been christened Needle Park. The hostage crisis in Iran hovers over the presidential election.

The author’s fictional Buddy Winter is an edgy comedian and late-night talk-show host whose nervous breakdown five years earlier made him walk off his enormously popular show in the middle of a broadcast. He and his family live in the Dakota, trying to sort through their bewildering change of fortune.

Buddy’s son Anton, the book’s 23-year-old narrator, has been laid low by malaria acquired during a Peace Corps stint. His relationship with his father has always been too close for comfort, and now Dad is pleading with him to stick around and help jump-start his comeback. But Anton’s very reason for going abroad was to escape his father’s influence and find his own way.

In Buddy, the author has created a marvelously complicated man. He’s part Jack Paar, who once walked off his show, and part Jonathan Winters, who suffered several nervous breakdowns. Outwardly, Buddy has been all joi de vivre, a captivating storyteller and wit. Bushwhacked by his breakdown, he flees job and family, travels the world and tries to establish an equilibrium before returning to the Dakota.

Lennon isn’t just a celebrity neighbor, but a family friend willing to let his guard down with the Winters. Barbash invests this ex-Beatle with compassion, integrity and earthy humor, even as he depicts him nursing wounds from a difficult childhood and lamenting the public’s assault on idols it claims to revere.

A skilled sailor, Anton tutors John in the waters off Cold Spring Harbor. “All you need is luff,” John quips. Later they survive a harrowing voyage from Rhode Island to Bermuda. That shared ordeal, plus the pain of missing-in-action fathers, cements a bond between the pair.

Barbash excels at bringing alive the New York of this era, as his characters turn up at the Oak Bar at the Plaza, the Central Park Zoo or the Explorer’s Club. His dialogue is superb, incandescent with witty repartee. Buddy matching wits with his wife, Emily, could be starring in a remake of “The Thin Man,” and John is equally adept at cheeky thrust and parry.

By contrast, Barbash’s depiction of Joan Kennedy, one of Emily’s buddies, as she campaigns with Ted for the Democratic nomination, comes off as wooden. And some scenes seem longer than necessary to make their point. But on the whole, “The Dakota Winters” is a very satisfying novel, entertaining and illuminating in equal measure.

Anton’s dilemma propels the Winter family drama: “I sometimes lost track of where Buddy’s thoughts ended and mine began . . . . He told me once that I’d become the other half of him, which he meant as a compliment but made me feel weird.” The tragedy of John Lennon’s ambiguous relation to stardom propels the rest.

We know how Lennon’s year ended. In TV terms, Anton’s own story is “still in development.”

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