Is our current cultural fascination with celebrity at an all-time high, or is it really the same as it ever was? Although it’s easy to judge this latest generation by the implosion of YouTubers, Kardashian brands, and the reality programs giving has-been stars one last ride on the merry-go-round of relevance, the truth is that society’s love of fame has always been somewhat ludicrous. Consider the Hollywood rags of the 1920s, the screaming teenage rock fans of the 50s, and the rise of tabloid television in the 80s as points of evidence. Yet, for all that fascination, it’s easy to get lost on just how incredibly fickle the nature of celebrity can be. This is an aspect author Tom Barbash does a superb job of exploring through the lens of his latest work, The Dakota Winters, set in New York City, 1980.
The book opens with the return of Anton Winter, a 23-year-old man sent back from his Peace Corp mission in Gabon so that he may fully recover from a near-fatal bout of malaria. Just why he felt the need to go off to Gabon in the first place is a matter of exploration, and we learn that he was seeking some distance from his famous father, ex-talk show host Buddy Winter, with the hopes of creating a life outside the long shadow that Buddy casts. His illness, however, derails those plans, and at the novel’s open we find him returning home to that famous residence on the Upper West Side, the Dakota Building.
Here it seems his entire family is coping with transition, brought on by the loss of Buddy’s talk show when Buddy himself walked off the set while suffering a nervous breakdown and disappeared for several weeks. Older sister Rachel focuses on her job and budding relationship with a city cop; younger brother Kip makes waves on the high school tennis circuit; mother Emily, a semi-famous actress in her own right, focuses on the Teddy Kennedy election; and now with Anton back in the fold, Buddy begins to plot his return to television. Despite how beloved Buddy’s show was, however, his return is complicated by his two-year absence from the screen and ongoing questions about the state of his mental health. In the meantime, the family’s funds are quickly drying up and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the aloof image that is required of all celebrities. If they were a normal family, they could cop to the fact that they were simply down on their luck, but fame requires keeping up appearances – in itself a form of imprisonment.
This is what Barbash’s novel does so well. His exploration of celebrity culture and those just wanting to live their lives in peace is insightful and fascinating. It’s easy to be envious of the rich and famous, but hard to understand the pain that comes with it. If it were just the parallel stories of Buddy Winter and his son Anton, wrestling with their roles in each other’s lives while trying to remain unified in the singular goal of making it back to the small screen, this story might not have the same sort of impact, engaging as those narrative threads are. What really elevates things is the inclusion of John Lennon, a highly-researched fictionalized version of the former Beatle who is a neighbor of the Winter family, living close by in the Dakota Building. He’s personable, understanding the way people look at him without trying to be encumbered by it, and even jokingly refers to himself as a house-husband, regarding his proclivity to stay out of the spotlight.
John strongly identifies with Buddy, both having suffered the same sort of burnout in varying ways, and both seeming to struggle with how to move forward. Buddy’s been through a major psychological awakening and wants a new talk show to explore the deeper aspects of life, but most people are clamoring for the Buddy of old. Likewise, John is a true artist at heart, ready to make the music he wants to make, but always with the usual groupies surrounding the Dakota, ready to pepper him with questions about his relationship with Paul, or what it was like to live through Beatlemania. Anchoring these parallel stories is Anton, who in the case of his father would rather work alongside him than under his shadow, and in the case of John Lennon, would like to cultivate a meaningful friendship without coming off as just another sycophantic fan. Their climb back to a meaningful platform allows for some perspective on the subject of fame itself, with a special focus on how terribly exhausting success can be to maintain, and how fleeting it is when you don’t.
Other aspects making The Dakota Winters a worthy read include an honest view of the New York City of old, just before it was gentrified to the point of being one grand tourist attraction. The political stage of 1980, explored through the Kennedy campaign, demonstrates just how divisive we’ve always been in politics, just as referencing the Olympic boycott of the same year shows the global tensions that have always existed. Barbash’s work is fluid, and he creates a picture of a bygone era that is without the rose-tint of nostalgia. Instead, his setting and characters are remarkably human, amiably flawed, and not immune to tragedy, as we all know what ultimately befell John Lennon. You don’t need to be a fan of music or history to enjoy this book; you need only be a fan of quality writing.