Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Dakota Winters

THE DAKOTA WINTERS by Tom Barbash (Ecco, 2018) is a witty, dialogue-driven portrait of a family and celebrity in the liminal place and time of New York City in 1980-81. The Dakota of the title is not the wintry plains of the upper Midwest, but the New York landmark apartment building home to John Lennon and other notables.

The novel opens with Anton Winter, a 23-year-old Peace Corps Volunteer, returning to his family in New York to convalesce after suffering a bad bout of malaria in Gabon. There, he draws closer to his father, Buddy Winter—a famous talk show host (think Dick Cavett meets Stephen Colbert) whose on-air crackup has rendered him toxic to the showbiz industry.

How and if Buddy is able to return to showbiz with a new talk show, with Anton’s help, is the story that propels the narrative, and it’s an entertaining if melancholy ride. The contours of Buddy’s mental health, which seems to be perpetually fragile, partly inform the Buddy-Anton relationship and keep Anton attached to Buddy and his career perhaps longer than he should be.

There are plenty of moments of lightness and fun. We encounter many historical figures of the day, including Johnny Carson and Joan Kennedy, and the guests on Buddy’s show like Peter O’Toole and Larry Holmes, but the most fully, fictionally developed real life historical figure is John Lennon.

Lennon is the most important secondary character of the book. As a resident of the Dakota, he’s a familiar neighbor and friend to the Winters. The friendship he develops with Anton is revealing and formative for both of them. Lennon’s boundless creativity not only seems to positions him for a major comeback, it serves as a model for Anton’s own ambitions that he has buried in favor of helping Buddy revive his career. From this angle, Barbash’s approach to John Lennon humanizes him without ruining the Beatles aura.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono at the Dakota
While Barbash sometimes falters in using extended paragraphs of dialogue for exposition, he is mostly successful in offering a snappy and satisfying journey into the lives of celebrity, showbiz, and Manhattan at the dawn of the headiest decade of the twentieth century. Anton, an imminently likeable character, is not as fully fleshed as I would have preferred. While I believed his actions were realistic, even entertaining, I think a deeper portrait of his relationships with his love interests would have given us a better feeling of him as whole person—and not just the son of Buddy Winter (a role he doesn’t seek to outrun, but rather outgrow).

THE DAKOTA WINTERS is an enjoyable read. Sometimes melancholy, sometimes funny, it held my attention all the way through.