Author Tom Barbash on his novel The Dakota Winters
Part fantasy and part social history, new book feels Lennon’s presence
The book in some ways is definitely about celebrity. 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.
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.”
Igrewupfive blocks away from the Dakota and as kids we took it to be a big haunted mansion.
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.