The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 15 February 2019

The Dakota Winters

by Tom Barbash

Many people today would have a hard time grasping the magnitude of the effect John Lennon's murder had on a generation that lived through the 1960s and 70s. Lennon was 40 when he died and he has been dead for almost as long as he lived. But his significance as a cultural figure and the abrupt brutality of his death caused much of the world to fall into mourning. The grief at his loss has still not entirely dissipated for people of a certain age. Like the killing of JFK, it was a landmark in people's lives. Other famous people and musicians have died just as abruptly; Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur come to mind. But Lennon's murder echoes with those of JFK, RFK, MLK in its brutal silencing of a voice associated with peace and love. Part of the tragedy of his death, too, was that he had just released a new record and appeared to be on the brink of a pretty good second act. There were even rumors that some kind of Beatles reunion was imminent. All of that died with him.

The theme of the second act runs through this novel. Our narrator is Anton Winter, son of a one-time successful talk show host Buddy. They and their family live in the storied Dakota, a landmark apartment building on the edge of Central Park in New York, and also home of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, among other celebrities and businesspeople. Anton's stint in the Peace Corps was cut short by a near-fatal bout of malaria. Buddy's talk show career was cut short by a nervous breakdown two years before. Now Buddy is hoping to revive his career and he is counting on Anton helping him to do that. Anton, meanwhile, is searching for his next act, something of his own and separate from his famous father. John Lennon might be the key that gets the Winters the lives they're hoping to craft for themselves.

All of this takes place in 1980, the year before Lennon's murder. Barbash goes to great lengths to depict that year in nostalgic detail. In today's chaotic world, he reminds us that there have been eras in our history that felt just as tumultuous. In 1980, with the election of Ronald Reagan on the horizon, we also had the hostage crisis in Iran, Jimmy Carter's grim attempt at a rescue, the Soviet army in Afghanistan, the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid (which our heroes visit), the boycotted summer games, the eruption of Mount St Helens, Ted Kennedy's run for President (for which our hero's mother rubs elbows with Ted's wife Joan), and New York City not long after its bankruptcy and rife with a gloomy and violent atmosphere. The book relentlessly foreshadows Lennon's murder while reminding us Lennon was on an upswing, confident and happy. Sudden death is just that, sudden, unexpected, final.

So the book has a slightly ominous tone. Yet there are hopeful and uplifting moments. Things are going pretty well in Buddy Winter's return to fame. Anton is recovering from malaria and finding his own path. The Beatles are on the brink of reunion. Everything is looking up, and yet we, especially those alive at the time, know what is coming. Perhaps that is Barbash's trick. Since we know how it has to end, we are compelled to read forward and see how he writes his own version of a very famous ending. And yet, through all of that, there is a curious lightness to the story. It is also relentlessly name-dropping. One wonders about the challenges of putting words into the mouths of real people, from Terry Bradshaw to Johnny Carson, many of whom are alive to confirm or deny the writer's authenticity. We'd like to put Barbash's dialogue into the voice of Lennon as we imagine it, but the author reminds us more than once that as famous as they are, we still don't really know famous people. It feels like a stretch to place them into a novel, but it's all imagination.

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See also: [Lennon by Ray Coleman]