The “Winters” in this new work from Tom Barbash are the members of the Winters family who live in the Dakota, the famous residence in the heart of New York City. “The Dakota Winters” is a novel populated by characters both fictional and actual, and it is a novel that is very much about the loss of innocence of both a young man and an aging city.
It is the beginning of 1980 in New York City — winter — and 23-year-old Anton Winter has just returned from an unsuccessful stint as a member of the Peace Corps. Almost as soon as he arrived in Africa, Anton contracted malaria. He has been sent home to recuperate in his family apartment (which once belonged to Boris Karloff) in The Dakota, one of the most desirable locations on the Upper West Side of a city that is itself on the cusp of major changes.
Living at The Dakota — made notorious by both Ira Levin’s novel and Roman Polanski’s film of “Rosemary’s Baby” — is a sign of basically having reached the top. Says Anton early in the novel: “There was an accepted truth that above your job, your salary, the organizations you belonged to, the clothes you wore, and the car you drove, the biggest indicator of status in New York was your address. For as long as we lived in the Dakota, we were fine, by appearances if not in truth.”
The truth is that Anton returns to a home in which his father, Buddy, is trying to get his career back on track. Buddy famously — and quite literally — walked out on his successful late-night talk show and eventually underwent a nervous breakdown.
Anton’s mother Emily, a former actress, now spends her time supporting her husband emotionally and supporting the presidential campaign of Ted Kennedy while cementing her friendship with Kennedy’s wife, Joan. Anton’s younger brother, Kip, plays a lot of tennis, eager for Buddy’s attention. Rachel, the oldest child, left home a while back.
As for Anton, he tells us: “My own story was, in TV terms, still in development.” His is a story that comprises the main focus of the novel. Anton finds himself being courted once again by his father to be his assistant, and Anton is eaten up with worry over once more becoming “Buddy’s Boy Friday” even as he, like his brother Kip, is desperate to find his place as Buddy’s son.
Those very personal aspirations of Anton Winter and the very socio-political aspirations of New York City in the 1980s are at the heart of “The Dakota Winters.” Barbash chronicles the fictional coming of age of a young man dangling in a world he wants but doesn’t want, and of a city on the same journey.
It’s a delicate balancing act that Brabash is attempting, and it’s one he brings off with the literary finesse of writers like E.L. Doctorow in books like the classic “Ragtime.”
Fictional characters and events bump up against actual people and events. The Lake Placid Winter Olympics and the quickly changing world of news (presidential campaigns) and entertainment (late night talk-shows) bump up against the likes of Ted Kennedy, Phil Donahue, Johnny Carson and — brilliantly — John Lennon.
It is Lennon, living in The Dakota with wife Yoko Ono, who serves not only as possible celebrity guest for Buddy’s new talk show, but also as surrogate father for Anton. For Anton’s situation is so basic, so real, so obvious to others that, late in the book, John Lennon tells him in a exhilarating section involving a voyage to Bermuda on a boat manned, among others, by both Lennon and Anton: “‘And whose bloody life will you have lived and will you wake up someday as an old man and realize all you did was work on someone else’s fading dream?’”
Of course, there is our foreknowledge of what will happen to Lennon at the end of 1980 in the archway of The Dakota at the hands of a stranger.
By the end of “The Dakota Winters,” a young man and a city are on the brink of change. The brilliance of the novel lies in the presentiments Tom Barbash has Anton sense about a city — and, by implication, a country — about which he notes more than once: “Something mean was building out there.”
Steven Whitton is a retired Professor of English.