The Dakota Winters by Tom Barbash

 

There’s something weirdly fascinating about a celebrity crackup — especially a fantastically dramatic one that takes place in a public space. Famous people supposedly have the keys to the kingdom. What makes them call it quits?

In most cases, it certainly isn’t lack of funds. But a cheating romantic partner, perhaps? Drug addiction? The absence of perceived success?

For Buddy Winter, star of Tom Barbash’s new novel and the host of an Emmy-winning late-night talk show, none of these reasons are what caused him to suffer a mental breakdown during his opening monologue and walk off the set for good. His marriage to Emily, the love of his life, was still very much intact. His show’s ratings were at one of their highest points since the show began 10 years earlier in 1969. By all accounts his work should have been endlessly fulfilling.

So what prompted the implosion?

Apparently, Buddy had simply had enough of the limelight and all the B.S. What happens next — including Buddy’s crotchety slog back from the abyss — is the subject of Barbash’s The Dakota Winters — a thoroughly entertaining though sometimes uneven exploration of a codependent father-son relationship in which each member is trying desperately to suss out his place in the universe and make his mark on the world.

The novel is told from the perspective of Buddy’s oldest son, 23-year-old Anton, who returns home after a year in the African nation of Gabon  — a Peace Corps stint cut short by a near-lethal bout of malaria. The timing of Anton’s homecoming couldn’t be more fortuitous. In the midst of his own physical recovery, he’s semi-unwillingly tasked with nursing Buddy back to mental and spiritual health in preparation for a potential re-entry into showbiz.

The process isn’t easy. For one, Buddy — like many navel-gazing celebrities — is a smidge too neurotic for his own good. (For example, when he’s asked to step in for Johnny Carson for a four-day run, Buddy’s response is “I suppose I’m excited … To be honest … it’s a little soon.”) As for Anton, though he proved integral on set prior to Buddy’s meltdown, he’s not entirely sure he wants to launch whatever his own career might turn out to be by either once again becoming “Buddy’s Boy Friday” or by relying on Daddy’s coattails for connections.

Plus, there are other activities on Anton’s dance card. Busing tables at the chichi Park Tavern. An occasional fling with a waitress.  But mainly hanging out with neighbor John Lennon post-Beatles breakup and teaching him to sail. In fact, one of the most epic and scene-stealing moments in the book involves Lennon’s maiden sea voyage from New York to Bermuda during a massive storm. (Think Lennon at the ship’s helm, as a maniacal Captain Ahab in hot pursuit of his infamous white whale.)

Photo: Sven Wiederholt

But here’s what’s interesting about Barbash’s approach in the novel. Though he does a permissible job exploring the impetus behind Buddy’s midlife crisis — and Anton’s half-hearted attempts to come into his own — most of what readers might be curious about (What did Buddy do while he was out exploring his inner psyche? What does the wayward Anton really feel about growing up with a famous father — and why isn’t he thinking more about girls?) happens off the page.

Instead, where Barbash — who grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side —  really excels is in painting a vivid portrait of late 1970s/early 1980s New York in the year leading up to Lennon’s murder. Rather than air Buddy or Anton’s psychic laundry or expose their inner demons, he uses their respective circumstances as a lens from which to view the city and assess the temperature of the country.

For example, the duo’s joint and solo jaunts to Central Park and throughout the city while gainfully unemployed showcase an alternative to the well-heeled universe in which they belong. Through their excursions on the graffiti-splattered subway to matinees at art houses no longer in existence, and references to the unarmed crime-prevention vigilante group the Guardian Angels, cocaine-fueled Studio 54, and a seemingly endless stream of street muggings, readers are treated to a vision of a gloriously gritty New York City that’s almost unrecognizable compared with the yuppified, scrubbed-clean version of today.

Other mentions — the 52 Americans held hostage in Iran, the Chappaquiddick incident and Ted Kennedy’s failed presidential bid, and the United States’ boycott of the Olympic Games to protest the Soviet Union’s refusal to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan — situate the narrative firmly in place during another time in history when the world felt as if it was nearly always on the verge of disaster.

Then, of course, there’s Barbash’s seductive descriptions of the notorious apartment building (of “Rosemary’s Baby” fame), where most of the novel takes place. With its striking turrets, opulent parties and glamorous tenants, and ghost-ridden hallways (especially on the building’s top two floors), the Dakota is “like a European Village — in, say, Luxembourg — open, friendly, grand, with stories everywhere, and the right people to tell those stories and to go out and live them.”

On its most basic level, The Dakota Winters is a bird’s-eye view into the lifestyles of the rich and privileged — one that isn’t always as cohesive as we might like. Still, for readers in the mood for a nostalgic trip down memory lane — especially one set in the Big Apple — it’s a convincing ride.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Clearly Barbash begs to differ. Here, he imagines what might happen if people like Buddy Winter, Ted Kennedy, even John Lennon could move beyond life’s disappointments or their own shortcomings to rise like a phoenix from the ashes and begin again.

 

Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle (December 10, 2018)

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