“The Dakota Winters” (Ecco, 324 pp., ★★½ out of four), Tom Barbash’s new novel, reads like a journalistic faux-memoir that feels familiar – especially if you knew New York in 1980, when Manhattan was emerging from a decade of bad press as a crime-ridden, drug-addled island of self-absorption.
Not that the seamy underside of the Apple is much on display here. Barbash instead focuses on the privileged, castle-like confines of a fabled apartment building on Central Park West, The Dakota, where “Rosemary’s Baby” was so ominously set, and where celebrities, most prominently ex-Beatle John Lennon and Yoko Ono, lived above it all.
His novel ambitiously blends fictional with historical characters, and it’s neither overwritten nor experimental. The fictional Dakota tribe, the Winters, mingles easily with the real one, via the first-person account of 23-year-old Anton, whose father Buddy, a comedian and former late-night TV talk show host, is charting a comeback. In the mid-1970s, Buddy Winter had famously walked off his show, disappeared for a while and navigated a vague mid-life crisis.As for Anton, he has returned to the Dakota following an African stint with the Peace Corps that left him with malaria. Upon his recovery, he leaps back into Manhattan high- and low-life, falling in with old friends and family, dropping the names of bands, restaurants and rendezvous. But Anton gets serious in his efforts to revive his father’s career, signing on as producer of a new Buddy Winter show and hoping to land Dakota neighbor Lennon for an appearance that will ensure the show’s success.
The book’s foreshadowing – no spoiler alert necessary – clues us in on how it all turns out. A heavy hand points toward that fateful moment in December 1980, when John Lennon was shot to death by a deranged fan in front of the Dakota. “Something mean was building out there,” thinks Anton in the months before the tragedy. “As I made my way up the unlit side of Central Park West, I felt my heart quicken with fear.”
Unfortunately, there’s not much to make our readerly hearts quicken, mainly because Barbash tells more than he shows. We’re assured that Buddy Winter is a comic genius, but he doesn’t comes to life on the page or deliver a brilliant line.Much of the novel is written in dialogue, most of it archly knowing New Yorker-ese, yet too little of it sparks with differentiating quality, and so the characters sound stock. Meanwhile, the themes of what-price-fame and absent fathers swirl around the key personas of Buddy and John, but never to a point of revelation or persuasive poignance.
Still, Barbash builds momentum with the book’s centerpiece, an account of John Lennon’s real-life sail to Bermuda during his last year, when a raging storm nearly scuttled the craft and Lennon steered it heroically, singing dirty sea chanties.
Best of all, Lennon’s deadpan Liverpudlian voice comes through, especially when he tells Anton the backstory of some famous Beatles songs like “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” (“An article I saw in a gun magazine … I thought it was crazy. Guns are warm when you’ve just shot someone.”)
At the very least, Barbash serves Lennon well, reimagining the brief shining moment of his Manhattan contentment.