The Dakota Winters by Tom Barbash

The Comeback Kids…

😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1979, and Anton Winter has returned to his parents’ home in New york after a spell with the Peace Corps in Gabon which came to an abrupt end when Anton nearly died of malaria. As he recovers, he draws closer to his father, Buddy, who is also recovering, from a nervous breakdown which caused him to have an on-air meltdown, bringing his hugely successful career as a talk-show host to a halt. Now Buddy wants to revive his career and he wants Anton beside him, working behind the scenes just as he used to do. Anton is beginning to wonder, though, if this how he wants to spend his life, as a kind of adjunct of his father’s. This is the story of both men’s journeys towards resuming their interrupted lives. And it’s also the story of Anton’s friendship with a neighbour of theirs in the famous Dakota apartment building in New York – John Lennon – another man on the point of making a comeback…

I had two distinct disadvantages while reading this novel. Firstly, I was never a serious Beatles or John Lennon fan, so many of the references flew over my head, and I was never in a position to say whether the depiction of John’s personality was authentic. Secondly, the book is filled with references to American culture of the era. Some of these are globally famous – movies, major actors, Presidents and major political events – but some are more specific to the US, such as TV shows, chat-show hosts, New York clubs and so on. Neither of these seriously impaired my ability to understand the story nor my enjoyment, but I feel I’d have got more of that pleasurable frisson of recognition that comes from being drawn back to a specific point in time if I’d been more steeped in the prevailing culture.

It’s very well written and the characterisation of both Anton and Buddy is excellent. Buddy is one of those sparkling, gifted people who dominate their company wherever they go – the type of person people want as a guest to entertain them. Anton loves his father dearly, but is beginning to feel that he wants something more than to be his father’s beloved son and chief assistant. Following his breakdown, though, Buddy is vulnerable and Anton feels a rather onerous duty, as well as a good-natured desire, to help his father back onto his pedestal. Anton’s growing friendship with John Lennon provides him with an escape from the somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere of living and working with his family, and at the same time gives him an insight into the kind of excitement of being friends with the famous which he has seen from the other side, with people wanting to be seen to be with Buddy. It’s an interesting examination of the impact of fame on those around the famous.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono outside the Dakota

The New York Anton has always known is the glittering, glamorous bit where everyone, it seems, is a celebrity of some kind, and where everyone knows everyone else. But of course there’s another New York, and even Anton, with his cushioned life, is becoming aware of the growing poverty and drugs problems that are leading to an atmosphere of violence and danger. It’s also a time of comebacks – apart from Buddy and John Lennon, Teddy Kennedy is running for the Presidential nomination, trying to recover from the scandal of Chappaquiddick, while Muhammad Ali is about to make his final comeback in a bout against Larry Holmes. Anton, watching these events, is wondering if comebacks are ever really possible, or even if they’re desirable. Is holding onto past glories a way of losing out on future possibilities? Again, even this non-American reader knows that New York too hit rock bottom and had to make a spectacular comeback of its own.

Tom Barbash

The other strand that runs lightly through the book is the question of why people become obsessed with celebrities. Lennon fans stand outside the Dakota in all weathers, hoping for a glimpse of their hero. For some, this is just a way of showing healthy appreciation, but Barbash shows the more fanatical side of it, such as the girl who is convinced that John is going to leave Yoko and marry her instead. We don’t meet the man who killed Lennon, but knowing that he’s out there adds a chilling edge to the fan worship that Anton has always accepted as part of celebrity life.

There’s a little too much referencing and name-dropping for my taste. While some of the anecdotes about various celebrities are amusing and/or interesting, I felt that fewer of them would have led to a tighter book overall. However, that’s a small criticism of a book that I found both entertaining and thought-provoking.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Scribner.

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30 thoughts on “The Dakota Winters by Tom Barbash

  1. It does sound like an interesting take on the New York of that era, FictionFan. And I’m glad the main characters were people you could enjoy spending time with as you read. To me, that’s important. I’m not sure about the name-dropping, myself, if I’m being honest. But the book does sound like a solid story, and an interesting look at life in the late 1970s. And that’s a fascinating question why people feel the way they do about celebrities. It still happens, and it does make one wonder…

    • There was a bit too much name-dropping for my taste, even although he was talking about the subject of fame. But the fictional characters were very well drawn and the themes were interesting. It’s one that’s well worth reading, and did give me a good impression of the richer end of New York life at that point in time. I often wonder why so many people want to be famous – it doesn’t seem to make for happy lives very often…

  2. Sold! And I believe it’s gone straight into paperback. I particularly like the idea of the theme of celebrity being tackled. These people live in a strange and dysfunctional world: universally loved one minute, reviled the next.

    • Hurrah! Yes, he gave a really credible picture of living with people who were famous rather than being famous oneself, and I thought that was an interesting angle on it. I don’t know why so many people want to be famous – it always seems such a miserable kind of existence when you can’t even go out without bodyguards…

  3. I think I would enjoy the timeframe of this one (yay for the 70s!!), but as a small-town southern girl, I don’t know how much I’d enjoy the NYC setting. Still…. (maybe for the wish list)

    • Ha! I enjoyed the look at the ’70s too, even though I’m always horrified when things that happened in my memory now count as “historical”!! The NYC stuff was interesting on the whole, but maybe a bit too much naming of famous restaurants and stores for someone like me who doesn’t know it at all…

  4. W-e-l-l … maybe. I’m not really “sold” on the premise, but I can see where it might prove interesting — if one really wants to revisit the ’70s, that is! I imagine many of the NYC references and even some of the celebrity names would fly right over my wee head, ha!

    • Ha! As an escapee from the ’70s, I’m not sure I want to go back! 😉 But the themes were interesting and the characterisation of the fictional characters was very good. Too many of the references flew by me – I’m sure you’d get far more of the celebrity references than me, but might find all the stuff about New York clubs and restaurants equally obscure…

  5. Hmmm this does sound interesting to me, and although many of those references would fly over my head as well, I’ve read similar books that have done the same thing, but it didn’t reduce my enjoyment of them. Is there much description of the apartment building itself? It looks pretty cool in those pictures…

    • Yes, he describes the actual building very well and tells the history of it, plus he gives what feels like an authentic picture of what it must have been like to live there with all different sorts of rich and famous people at that time – the odd friendships that grew up and so on. I enjoyed that aspect a lot!

    • Hurrah! I hope you enjoy it if you manage to fit it in! It was unusual for me in that it was concentrating on the glamorous side – most of the books I’ve read about NY have been about the grittier aspects. Too much crime fiction in my life!

    • Thank you! I enjoyed the comeback aspect, especially since I knew the backstories of some of them – like Muhammad Ali and Teddy Kennedy – more than I knew about the various TV celebrities of the time.

  6. What an interesting idea! The name dropping and places wouldn’t mean anything to me but I’d love to read something similar set in a time and place I knew. Readers who loved The Beatles and who know New York and the celebrities of the time will go mad for this.

    • Yes, I reckon I’d have enjoyed it much more if I’d been familiar with all the references. But the themes about fame and comebacks were interesting even without that.

  7. I’m not a big fan of Lennon or the Beatles either, but the New York setting definitely appeals. His short stories are pretty good, too – I really enjoyed them when I read a collection a few years ago.

    • If that was his Stay Up With Me collection, I really enjoyed those too. In fact, it was because of them that I went for this one. He’s a talented writer, even if this book maybe wasn’t quite a perfect match for me. I’ll be intrigued to see what he does next…

  8. I’m not sure about this. A lot of the references will pass me by and I’m not a Lennon fan. But…you do make a compelling case for reading it, and I do like a New York setting. Decisions, decisions!

    • Lennon isn’t exactly the main character – the fictional ones are – but I did feel I couldn’t quite decide if his portrayal of Lennon was authentic. But I enjoyed it anyway – he’s a good writer and I’m hoping next time he’ll pick a setting that I feel more comfortable with…

    • Yes, it has. In fact, I kinda wish he hadn’t included real people and events – a purely fictional story might have felt more focused on the themes. I found myself a bit distracted by trying to work out which bits were fiction and which fact…

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