When John Lennon was shot to death in December 1980 outside his home at the Dakota, it was a horrific ending to a tumultuous year. Fifty-two Americans remained hostages in Iran, the United States led a worldwide boycott of the Moscow Olympics, Ronald Reagan swept a transformative presidential election.
Tom Barbash’s engaging new novel, “The Dakota Winters” (out Tuesday on Ecco), sees it all through the eyes of Anton Winter, a twentysomething neighbor who befriends the ex-Beatle. Anton is also struggling to emerge from the shadow of his father, a TV talk show host (think “Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson and a little bit of ‘Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,’” Barbash says) depending on Anton to get him back on the air after a public breakdown.
Barbash (“The Last Good Chance,” “Stay Up With Me”), who grew up on the Upper West Side in the 1970s, spoke with amNewYork about revisiting the world of his youth and adapting an icon.
How do you fictionalize someone like John Lennon?
I read everything I could about him. Also the memoirs, the books that were written by his personal assistant [Frederic Seaman] about the last year of his life and by [his and Yoko Ono’s] tarot card reader. And then his letters. And also I read a lot of the books that John read in his last year, to try to think about his obsessions and fascinations.
Were you at all apprehensive writing dialogue for him?
Oh, of course. It was incredibly daunting. And my feeling about it was I really couldn’t do it unless I thought I had something new to say. . . . And my sense of it — from the stuff that I was reading — was that he hadn’t really talked about something that was so central to him in his last year, which was that when he was two years old, his father left — he was a merchant seaman — and a lot of his young imagination were longings about his father being at sea, or longing for his father to come home, or to go to sea with his father. And then in the last year of his life, [Lennon] bought a sailboat and learned to sail. And he had this incredible trip that was a true story. He chartered a boat to go to Bermuda from Newport, Rhode Island, and sailed through a storm . . . and the captain . . . turned the boat over to novice John Lennon and he sailed seven hours through gale winds and high seas singing filthy Liverpool chanteys at the top of his lungs and channeling his Viking ancestors and saved everybody and felt immortal after that.
The book has a certain nostalgia for the Upper West Side during a pretty difficult time.
There was more of a middle class then, there was more of a mixture of people in the city, and a greater diversity, I think in many ways. Just living there, it was a dangerous time. I used to get mugged all the time. . . . I had $10 in my pocket not for if I got mugged but for when I got mugged. And we had strategies for getting down the street. And yet it was exhilarating, in many ways. There were all the great revival movie theaters and terrific bookstores and odd little stores. And it’s very different when you look at Columbus now and there’s a lot of these chain clothing stores. There is still some charm but it didn’t have the kind of electricity it felt like it had then. And yet the city had terrible economic problems. So it was a mixture of things.