The final year of Beatles’s legend John Lennon

  • The Dakota Winters by Tom Barbash.

Washington Post
Published: 12/28/2018 5:36:06 PM

Imagine sailing to Bermuda with John Lennon. It’s easy if you try! Now imagine Lennon has steered your ship safely through a horrific storm, lashing himself to the captain’s chair and singing “the foulest, filthiest, manliest sea shanty” through the night.

In Tom Barbash’s The Dakota Winters, you can practically hear Lennon’s signature cackle, feel the tickle of his ponytailed hair, smell the salt air. Narrator Anton Winter, whose family lives in Manhattan’s Dakota building – the same place John Lennon, Yoko Ono and their young son Sean live – has had years of sailing lessons, but while he’s busy puking his guts out, his musician neighbor navigates like he’s born to the mast.

This retelling of this episode is so vivid you may wonder if Barbash had real-life access to the pivotal moment in the former Beatle’s biography. In 1980, after the experience in the storm, Lennon said he felt “reborn” and went on to write a few of his most famous songs: “Watching the Wheels,” “Beautiful Boy,” “I’m Losing You.”

Most of Barbash’s new novel is a less wild ride. This is a closely observed portrait of late-20th-century New York life. We slip back into a world where post-Chappaquiddick Ted Kennedy tries and fails to make a presidential bid and freewheeling nightlife has not yet been ravaged by the specter of AIDS. Meanwhile Anton’s father, Buddy Winter, makes his own bid, an attempt to return to network-television stardom after an on-camera meltdown. We know that Buddy must be a seriously broken man when he enlists 23-year-old Anton, fresh from a Peace Corps stint in Gabon, as his executive producer.

Like most 20-somethings, Anton isn’t sure he wants to be his father’s right-hand man. Anton wants adventures like the sailing trip; he takes a dishwashing job at a swanky restaurant to help pay the family’s mounting bills, but he’s naturally more interested in the after-hours action at the city’s clubs than in food service. He does, however, agree to work on a new CBS show called “Friday Night with Buddy Winter” after Buddy’s agent cajoles him: “They want you in on this. They like you. They like the two of you together.”

But it’s just after Thanksgiving 1980. Even if Buddy’s new show takes off, even if Anton pursues the career of his dreams – while a newly elected President Reagan changes the national tune – we all know what’s going to happen at the Dakota. Even though Anton doesn’t discuss it until the book’s end (a wise choice), Lennon’s murder hangs over all of the action. We all know what happened on the night of Dec. 8, 1980, when a man who had become synonymous with a different way of thinking, a different kind of progress, was lost.

As Anton relates what happened to his family afterward – which is all so much less dramatic and lovelier than you might hope – we remember that the aftermath of a great upheaval will always seem less important than the event itself, even if there’s a lot to learn from the quieter times.

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