Hobnobbing at the Dakota
By Lou Fancher
Simultaneously delightful and deep, Marin writer Tom Barbash’s new novel, The Dakota Winters, tells the story of a self-derailed talk show host and his bumpy return to fame’s limelight. Taking place primarily in 1980, a much-loved Buddy Winter two years before walked off the set mid-monologue during a midlife crisis. Left behind and devastated are his family, co-workers, fans, and financial backers. His oldest son, Anton, has recently returned from a stint in the Peace Corps after suffering near-death malaria. Although resistant, Anton is inevitably swept back into his former role as his father’s agent, producer, counselor, cheerleader, confidant, and near superhero-son savior.
The Winter family lives in the Dakota, a real-life building on New York City’s Upper West Side that housed celebrities, including at that time John Lennon, who plays a major role in the narrative. While Anton and Buddy craft the latter’s reinvention and test jokes—an especially enjoyable part of the book—family and friends hobnob with members of Teddy Kennedy’s floundering political campaign and conduct high-stakes meetings with potential financial backers. They also swing amid celebrities at the Lake Placid Olympics, in Hollywood, in the equally star-filled Dakota’s apartments, and on the streets of New York. The best scenes blend real-life show biz culture, historical events and locations, and semi-fictitious adventures—like Anton’s sailing trip with Lennon that climaxes in a storm after which a wildly creative Lennon unleashes a torrent of new music.
Barbash teaches writing at Oakland’s California College of the Arts. A previous novel, The Last Good Chance, won the California Book Award. His stories and articles have been published in The New York Times, Tin House, McSweeney’s, VQR, and other publications.
The novel is entertaining, packed with historical references, and filled with witty, never pretentious or self-aware, dialogue worthy of a Dick Cavett show or a nostalgia-toned version of Saturday Night Live. Barbash’s novel delivers a complete package. Behind the humor, there’s a young man struggling to find identity separate from his father; a family in the public spotlight dealing with the residuals of a mental breakdown and a world that we all know grew several shades darker when Lennon was assassinated outside the Dakota in late 1980. For its range and fine-tuned writing, it’s the kind of book you wish—like your favorite Beatles song—would never end.