If you’re the discerning sort of celebrity, you know when you’ve had a good run and should quit the limelight for a while. You also know when, if ever, to mount a comeback. In Tom Barbash’s “The Dakota Winters,” fictional former talk show host Buddy Winter and real-life ex-Beatle John Lennon — for all their differences — are equally discerning. And there’s something else they have in common: what they don’t know. Neither can possibly determine that a killer is lurking around the corner. In Buddy’s case, this doesn’t matter; in Lennon’s, it makes all the difference.
“The Dakota Winters,” narrated by Buddy’s son Anton as he looks back today at the New York City of 1980, is a keen and understated examination of how the vagaries of celebrity life impinge on a father-son relationship. Barbash (author of the award-winning short story collection “Stay Up With Me”) has crafted a novel that relies too heavily for tension on the reader’s awareness that an assassin’s bullet will fell Lennon, but allows the rock star some choice observations on the nature of his and his friend Buddy’s status: “We’re our own particular animal, ex-stars. They deprive us of space, hound us, and then we want to escape to do our thing, and if we peek our faces out, they stare at us, prod us, judge us, and who are they to judge?”
Anton, 23 years old and just returned from Gabon, where he served in the Peace Corps and contracted malaria, moves back into Manhattan’s landmark Dakota apartment building, where his parents and younger brother still live, and where Lennon and wife Yoko Ono make their home. He aims to help his father, who recently walked off his talk show and into a now receding midlife crisis, land a gig as host of a new show. However, Anton also yearns to slip out of his dad’s shadow, which is where he spent all his time contributing (behind the scenes) to the first show. Indeed, he’s wary of, as he says, “signing on as Buddy’s Boy Friday again.”
Despite its occasional sluggishness, “The Dakota Winters” retains a stubborn appeal. The reader wants to find out how Buddy’s attempted comeback fares, and what effect the dreaded but inevitable assassination of Lennon has on an emotionally vulnerable Anton.
Above all this hovers a philosophical riddle. The Beatles, long since split up, are clearly destined to reunite and play a couple of songs on Buddy’s just greenlighted new show. Yet you, the reader, know that a murderous madman will scuttle this intended rendezvous. Barbash seems to pose a borderline nonsensical yet disconcerting question: Can chance subvert fate?
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a Malta-based book critic. His debut novel, “When All Else Fails,” will be published by Interlink Books in March 2019.
The Dakota Winters
By: Tom Barbash.
Publisher: Ecco, 326 pages, $26.99.