Tom Barbash’s dark and humorous second novel takes a risk by combining invented and real characters. I feared nagging doubts about what was ‘true’. However, it absolutely succeeds. Set in 1979–80, the alluring (fictional) Winter family attend parties with neighbours like Betty Bacall or John and Yoko. They all live in the Dakota building — the Upper West Side landmark built to resemble ‘a Habsburg castle’ and populated by New York luminaries. ‘A malady shared by a lot of the building was that of being famous’ and Dakota etiquette demanded that even the legendary be treated as normal. The twinned fascination and curse of celebrity is a major theme in a book that combines the nostalgic comedy of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and the bleaker cynicism of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities.
Back from a year in Africa with the Peace Corps and an almost fatal bout of malaria, 23-year-old Anton Winter lives with his glamorous parents. Wisecracking is a family speciality and they quaff champagne and Negronis, sing dirty limericks and drive a 1963 Mercedes. The father, Buddy, is the planet around which Anton, his brother and mother (campaigning for Teddy Kennedy) are satellites. A famous talk-show host who had a disastrous nervous breakdown on air, Buddy is hoping for a comeback and Anton is cajoled into providing emotional, practical and intellectual support. Buddy is charming and clever, but his monstrous egotism and neediness subsume his son. ‘In truth I sometimes lost track of where Buddy’s thoughts ended and mine began,’ admits Anton. ‘For years I couldn’t tell if I liked a movie or a book or a New Yorker short story without consulting him first.’
Rosemary’s Baby ‘did for the Dakota what Jaws did for the ocean’, quips Anton. However, for inhabitants of the enormous high-ceilinged apartments with old servants’ bells and dumbwaiters, it is the outside that is perilous. This is a city where passengers are randomly pushed under subway trains patrolled by vigilante Guardian Angels, addicts congregate in Needle Park and guns are everywhere. Fanatical and delusional Beatles fans loiter by the entrance. When Lennon emerges from a miserable, if pampered, self-imposed imprisonment within, we already know what awaits him.
But the book is set before his murder. Fleeing the celebrity-worshipping city, Lennon invites Anton on a sailing trip to Bermuda. Despite a terrifying storm and appalling sickness, the voyagers become close. ‘I feel so fuckin’ alive,’ shouts John as he battles the tempest; Barbash makes you believe every word. But even here, nature cannot trump city ambitions, as Anton agonises about how to invite Lennon on to his father’s new TV show as a prize catch.
British readers may not recognise all the sports and media personalities with bit parts, but this is a minor quibble about a thoroughly enjoyable book. Barbash’s short story collection, Stay Up With Me (2013) depicted the quiet, often sad dramas of ‘ordinary’ people; The Dakota Winters illuminates the transience and tragedies of those who achieve fame.