Monday, December 24, 2018

Book Review: "The Dakota Winters" by Tom Barbash

Imagine what it must be like to have a famous father, and to play a role in his fame. Imagine what it's like to be so enmeshed in his situation that you're not sure where his path ends and yours begins, or how to separate the two.

That describes Anton Winter's life pretty perfectly. His father, Buddy, was a famous late-night talk show host, and for years Anton, his mother, and his siblings played parts in many of the sketches his father did.

As Anton got older, he played a more crucial role in the show, running through Buddy's monologue with him, prepping him regarding his various guests, and prepping the celebrity and non-celebrity guests as well. And then one night, Buddy had a bit of a nervous breakdown and flamed out, and disappeared for a while.

Finding himself at loose ends, Anton goes to Gabon with the Peace Corps for 10 months, and returns home after a particularly bad bout of malaria, which nearly killed him. It's January of 1980, and he returns to his family's apartment in the Dakota, the legendary complex in New York City. The city, and the country, are on edge, with crime in the city on the rise again, the Iranian hostage crisis, and presidential politics heating up.

While there's tumult around them, Buddy is back to his old self, if not better and stronger. He is a more present figure in the lives of his family for the first time in a long while, and the stability feels like the return of an old friend. But Buddy is longing to get back into show business, and Anton wants to help get him there. It's not long before Anton is becoming his emissary, trying to find an angle to get him a place in front of the public he misses so much.

As Anton works to find Buddy's next opportunity, he's trying to decide what's next for him as well. He fills his nights working as a busboy at a fancy restaurant, and he spends time getting closer with one of his father's close friends and their neighbor in the Dakota, John Lennon. What John wants more than anything is to learn how to sail, and Anton is able to teach him, and bring the singer peace amidst the demands of fans for more music.

The Dakota Winters was a really fascinating read, full of the complicated, interdependent relationships among family members who try to make another's dream happen. There are lots of show business-related tidbits, and the book had a real you-are-there feel for different places and moments in history, like the 1980 Winter Olympics and some rallies for Ted Kennedy during his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

I really enjoyed the characters in this book, although Anton and Buddy were the most vividly drawn of all. I also found the scenes with John Lennon pretty fascinating, and while this is a work of fiction, his personality seemed very much in keeping with what I've read about him in the year prior to his death. I've never read anything that Tom Barbash has written before, but he definitely has a knack for telling a great story.

The pacing was a bit slower than I would have liked—I felt like the book was moving toward a few inevitable conclusions, and it took a little longer to get there. I also found the transition to the epilogue of sorts to be kind of abrupt, and given how much I became attached to the characters, I felt a little gypped by that. But none of these issues were insurmountable, and there's so much to enjoy about this book.

I joke sometimes that when I think "40 years ago," I think of the 1960s, but crazily enough 1979 will be 40 years ago next year. (Next week, actually.) The Dakota Winters is a great snapshot of that time, and a great family story.

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