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Book Club Choices: The Dakota Winters by Tom Barbash

by Shawn Thrasher

Back when I was young - maybe high school? maybe college? - I was in a literature class, and we were reading something by Jonathan Swift. As some of you reading this may be aware, trying to think back 30 years or more to what happened in a high school or college class is about as easy as carrying a snowball from one end of the desert to the other - however, I think the book we were studying was Gulliver's Travels. The teacher said that Swift used "verisimilitude" to make his novel seem real.

She explained that “verisimilitude” meant that a writer used bits and pieces from the real world to make what was happening in the novel seem just as real, even though it clearly was not (it was probably Gulliver’s Travels). Tom Barbash’s The Dakota Winters is chock full of delicious verisimilitude.

Barbash takes us back to the year 1980, where the Dakota is a swanky New York City co-op home to the very wealthy and very famous (John Lennon and Yoko Ono, for example). The Winters fall within that group – father Buddy Winters had been a talk show host (I kept seeing Tom Snyder in my head) with an extremely popular show throughout the ‘70s, who then had a nervous breakdown on the air and disappeared for an extent of time. He's trying to make a comeback, and we see this through the point of view of his 20-something son Anton, who has recently had a breakdown of his own (physical health rather than mental).

Anton narrates this one wonderful, terrible year in which the son props up his father until Buddy can stand on his own. Verisimilitudinally walking on and off stage through the novel are a cast of characters and events and happenings that made 1980 such a year - not just John and Yoko, but Teddy and Joan Kennedy (then running for president, with various Winters working on his campaign) and Johnny Carson and the Lake Placid Olympics and the hostages in Iran and Studio 54 (waning by this point) and Goldie Hawn (fresh off of Private Benjamin) and Peter O'Toole and old New York City (but not the Edith Wharton Old New York, but the 1980s New York City that was gritty and crime ridden and graffiti covered and filthy, punk rock and cocaine - the New York City from which Kurt Russell was trying to escape in the 1980s film).

Barbash paints this backdrop so lovingly and so real, injected with actual people and events and things and music, so much verisimilitude, that it is like a time machine. I cared about Buddy Winter and family (who all seemed straight out of a Wes Anderson movie) because I absolutely believed this crazy, incredible story that Barbash was telling us through the eyes of Anton Winter.

The Dakota Winters by Tom Barbash, Ecco, 2018.

Click to Read the Booklist Starred Review.

Shawn Thrasher is library director for Ontario (Calif.) City Library. He loves to read. It's easier to list what he does not like to read: angsty fiction, books about abuse, anything too sappily romantic, and books that are full of themselves. He also dabbles in poetry and art.


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