A sto­ried ad­dress

Part fan­tasy and part so­cial his­tory, new book feels Len­non’s pres­ence

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Books - JAMIE PORT­MAN

The Dakota Win­ters Tom Bar­bash Harper­collins

The more John Len­non roams the pages of Tom Bar­bash’s new novel, The Dakota Win­ters, the more real he be­comes.

More­over, his ap­pear­ances are not just a re­hash of fa­mil­iar his­tory. The most con­flicted of the Bea­tles will as­sume an as­ton­ish­ing new per­sona when he takes the helm of a sail­ing ves­sel in a deathde­fy­ing con­fronta­tion with a ter­ri­ble storm in the Ber­muda Tri­an­gle.

With the Len­non leg­end be­ing re­born for us here, we’re also en­cour­aged to en­ter­tain the pos­si­bil­ity that the Bea­tles will re­unite, that there will be a sec­ond act to an ex­tra­or­di­nary pop saga.

But of course that prom­ise will be un­ful­filled, for this is a novel set in the last year of Len­non’s life. Even­tu­ally, Len­non’s as­sas­sin, Mark David Chap­man — “dead in­side and full of point­less rage” — must oc­cupy cen­tre stage on that fate­ful night of Dec. 8, 1980.

“A lot of peo­ple think that the night John Len­non was as­sas­si­nated was the end of a lot of our hopes,” Bar­bash says. “It re­ally did feel like ev­ery­thing had changed.”

But Bar­bash doesn’t think he’s in­dulging in wish­ful think­ing with his fic­tional sug­ges­tion that a Bea­tles re­union was in the works at the time of Len­non’s death — that John, Paul Ge­orge and Ringo would once more make mu­sic to­gether.

“I think it ab­so­lutely would have hap­pened. They still needed each other, and I think they would have come back with a re­newed en­ergy.”

Len­non is a ma­jor fig­ure in a gallery of richly re­al­ized char­ac­ters, both real-life and fic­tional, who drive the nar­ra­tive of The Dakota Win­ters.

But there is an­other po­tent pres­ence in the novel — New York’s leg­endary Dakota apart­ment build­ing, home to a galaxy of celebri­ties in­clud­ing Judy Gar­land, Leonard Bern­stein, Boris Karloff, Paul Si­mon, Lau­ren Ba­call — and John Len­non and his widow, Yoko Ono, who still lives there.

“I grew up five blocks away from the Dakota and as kids we took it to be a big haunted man­sion,” Bar­bash says. There was also the fact that Rose­mary’s Baby had been filmed there. “It came out when I was a child — a movie about sa­tanists — and that also fed into the mys­tique.”

The Dakota Win­ters also emerges as so­cial his­tory — an af­fec­tion­ate but tough-minded evo­ca­tion of Man­hat­tan’s Up­per West Side dur­ing a trou­bled pe­riod in New York City’s his­tory.

“It was a pretty dicey place when I was grow­ing up,” the award-win­ning nov­el­ist re­mem­bers. “You had to have strate­gies for walk­ing down the street safely.” As a young­ster, he used to carry “mug money” in his pocket — a few bills to be promptly handed over to a mug­ger to avoid be­ing beaten up. “You had to be on guard.”

But now, as he chats from his North­ern Cal­i­for­nia home, Bar­bash is also re­mem­ber­ing the good things.

“The Up­per West Side was a won­der­ful mix­ture of peo­ple, and cul­tur­ally there was so much go­ing on in the area,” he says wist­fully. He had long wanted to write about this neigh­bour­hood as it was dur­ing his youth four decades ago — “so I had this idea of writ­ing about a fam­ily in the Dakota the year that John was as­sas­si­nated.”

But what kind of fam­ily? The story un­folds through the prism of 23-year-old An­ton Win­ter, who we first meet re­cov­er­ing from malaria af­ter a Peace Corps as­sign­ment. It’s a trou­bling time in An­ton’s life.

There are stresses in what once seemed to be a se­cure fam­ily fab­ric. His fa­ther, Buddy, once a cel­e­brated late-night tele­vi­sion per­son­al­ity, has suf­fered a break­down and re­mains in a state of frag­ile re­cov­ery. But even as An­ton seeks to help his fa­ther at­tempt a come­back, he’s also at­tempt­ing to find him­self.

“When you look at a lot of my sto­ries, one thread runs through them — the shift­ing dy­namic be­tween par­ents and adult chil­dren,” says Bar­bash, whose short fic­tion col­lec­tion, Stay Up With Me, was nom­i­nated for an in­ter­na­tional Fo­lio Prize.

In the cur­rent novel, An­ton en­ters new worlds while striv­ing to help his fa­ther. He’s a bus boy at Cen­tral Park’s famed Tav­ern on the Green. He vol­un­teers for Teddy Kennedy’s fu­tile cam­paign to run for pres­i­dent and res­ur­rect the spirit of his as­sas­si­nated brother, pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy.

And he be­comes friends with John Len­non.

Bar­bash knew he wanted to write about Len­non’s last months. But he also wanted to do so from the per­spec­tive of some­one who knew him less as a celebrity and more as a neigh­bour. At the same time, he wanted to ex­am­ine the pain of celebrity and its ef­fect on the lives of peo­ple like Len­non and his own frag­ile dad. That led to a pow­er­ful pas­sage in which Len­non walks through the Cen­tral Park Zoo and equates him­self with a caged an­i­mal who is stared at and prod­ded through the bars.

“The book in some ways is def­i­nitely about celebrity,” Bar­bash says.

“It’s about our long­ing to be fa­mous and the fact that a lot of peo­ple who des­per­ately want to be­come fa­mous sim­ply want to be anony­mous once that hap­pens.”

But with Len­non, he sees the pos­si­bil­ity of gen­uine re­birth.

“In this last year of his life he learns to sail. He char­ters a boat and heads for Ber­muda. Ev­ery­one gets sick and ex­hausted, and John ends up sail­ing a boat through a spec­tac­u­lar storm. He gets to Ber­muda, is re­united with his son, and here I see par­al­lels be­tween the story of Buddy and An­ton.

“I won­der whether peo­ple re­al­ize that, af­ter sav­ing ev­ery­body’s life, in­clud­ing his own, John wrote all of Dou­ble Fan­tasy in about 10 days. That was af­ter a five-year cre­ative drought. He re­ally was about to have a great sec­ond act.”

In at­tempt­ing a multi-faceted novel such as The Dakota Win­ters, Bar­bash was some­times alarmed by his am­bi­tion.

“But my rule about writ­ing is that you should al­ways reach be­yond your grasp and once it’s com­pleted, it will be never be­yond your grasp. Or to put it an­other way, if some­thing is prov­ing dif­fi­cult to do, it’s prob­a­bly worth do­ing.”

I grew up five blocks away from the Dakota and as kids we took it to be a big haunted man­sion. TOM BAR­BASH

AN­DREW BUR­TON/GETTY IM­AGES

John Len­non, Yoko Ono, Judy Gar­land, Leonard Bern­stein, Boris Karloff, Paul Si­mon and Lau­ren Ba­call are among the celebri­ties as­so­ci­ated with New York City’s famed Dakota apart­ment build­ing, which is the set­ting for the new novel The Dakota Win­ters.

John Len­non, left, signs an autograph for Mark David Chap­man hours be­fore Chap­man fa­tally shot him on Dec. 8, 1980. The mu­si­cian fea­tures promi­nently in a new work of fic­tion by Tom Bar­bash, set in New York City.

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