Tom Eisenbraun

BookPage starred review, February 2019

Imagine that the world never transitioned out of the ice age, but humanity’s long history has stayed more or less the same. To get through the winter, humans hibernate. Within this world, all the great artists, writers, historical figures, Shakespearean characters and Grecian myths endure, but they are reframed within an alternate reality that centers on humanity’s 16 weeks of sleep.

The pharmaceutical company HiberTech has developed a drug that allows humans to sleep dreamlessly through the winter, expending 30 percent less of their bodies’ hibernal fat reserves and requiring less strenuous preparation for the “Hib.” This comes with a caveat: One in every 3,000 who take the drug doesn’t quite wake up. Referred to as Nightwalkers, these unlucky people appear to have some vestige of their past lives rattling around, but their consciousnesses are nowhere to be seen. HiberTech has been developing methods to rewrite what’s left of the Nightwalkers’ consciousnesses in order to “redeploy” them. After all, one in 3,000 makes for good business.

A select few humans don’t hibernate, including Charlie Worthing, who joins the Winter Consulate to help keep the rest of humanity safe during the four months of winter. Charlie soon finds himself escorting a Nightwalker to Sector 12 in northern Wales to claim a bounty from HiberTech’s headquarters—and to follow up on rumors of a viral dream.

As Charlie is pulled deeper into a mystery he hadn’t meant to sign up for, readers are looped into a tale of dreamers, thieves and an elusive, mythical creature called the Gronk who folds its victims’ laundry, collects severed pinkies and has a strong preference for Rodgers and Hammerstein show tunes. 

Jasper Fforde is in fine form in his 14th novel, stringing along this adventure with wry wit, a sometimes-bonkers plot and a joke that takes a hundred pages to sneakily find its punchline. If not for the absurdity of the tale, Early Riser could’ve easily been a mere allegory of the dangers of global warming and Big Pharma. But what matters most is the nature of humanity, as empathy saves the day, and our good guy has no reason to wonder just how good he is.

 

This article was originally published in the February 2019 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Imagine that the world never transitioned out of the ice age, but humanity’s long history has stayed more or less the same. To get through the winter, humans hibernate. Within this world, all the great artists, writers, historical figures, Shakespearean characters and Grecian myths endure, but they are reframed within an alternate reality that centers on humanity’s 16 weeks of sleep.

Tom Barbash’s third novel, The Dakota Winters, sets a 20-something’s coming of age in a richly drawn New York City in 1979, as he struggles to come to terms with and step out of his exuberant father’s shadow. We chatted with Barbash about writing this colorful novel and what comes next.

What inspired The Dakota Winters?
I started out by wanting to write about a family living in the Dakota apartment building in the year John Lennon was assassinated. I grew up five blocks away from that hauntingly beautiful castle with the dry moat outside and the gargoyles and the arched entryway, and the famous people living within. I then imagined a celebrity father, a famed talk show host trying to get his life back, and it all started to come together.

Buddy Winters feels immediately recognizable in his landscape. What did you draw from as you fleshed out this character’s place in his own history?
I appreciate your saying that. I drew on the great talk show hosts my parents used to watch, particularly Dick Cavett, who had to my eyes the best job in the world. He had such a wide range of fascinating guests, and his shows were cultural events in and of themselves. The more I learned about that world, the more it seemed you would need to bring along your best brain to work, that you couldn’t afford to drift or fall into a funk. And I wondered about someone breaking under that pressure. I’ve also always been interested in the shifting roles we play with our parents, and someday likely with our kids, how unnerving it can be when someone who has taken care of you your whole life now needs your guidance and support.

The attention to setting plays a huge role in this story’s telling. What drew you to New York City in 1979? What did your research process look like as you prepared to write the novel?
The novel spans from late 1979 through 1980, and the more I lived in that year, the more I saw it as a pivotal year in the life of New York City and the country. You had the hostage crisis and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and a presidential election that changed everything. And you had the end of disco and the birth of new wave, so many great bands. In order to write the book, I lived in that year. I read the archived New York Times right through the year, and by reading The New Yorker and New York Magazine, I knew which bands played in which clubs and what movies were out and where. I watched a lot of those movies and read the magazines and some of the books that came out, and felt as though I was there, as unable as my characters to imagine the world we all live in now.

What begins like a straightforward coming-of-age story weaves its way through so much of its setting that the city and the narrator seem to commiserate in their mutual growing pains. How did the place itself feed what you were able to show about Anton?
The city was a dicey place back then, in particular the Upper West Side where your sense of danger could change literally block to block. I lived on 77th Street off Columbus near the Dakota, and you could see, back then, that block starting to gentrify. Anton both loves the city and longs to eventually leave it because it feels so much like his parents’ world and not entirely his own.

John Lennon’s character adds pivotal depth to Anton’s story. I can imagine the challenge of situating a fictional character into a pivotal moment in a well-known celebrity’s life. How did you prepare to step into Lennon’s story and voice? What were the challenges? What did you most enjoy about this process?
Yes, indeed, it was a daunting task to bring John to life in a novel. I read several biographies, and then the accounts of his personal assistant and his spiritual adviser, and I watched dozens of interviews of him on YouTube (and those great movies—A Hard Day’s Night, Help, Let It Be), and I read his collected letters. But the best thing I did was to read some of the books he read in that last year and watch the movies he watched. His assistant Fred Seaman listed many of these in his book. In that way I could track his fascinations, one of which was the sea.

New York City in 1980 was not without its own turbulent sociocultural landscape, often in ways that our present news cycle seems to mirror. How much did the state of current events play into the writing of this story?
There are so many parallels, issues in the Middle East, specifically Iran, tensions with the Soviet Union, a celebrity presidential candidate that few people at first took seriously, and a country obsessed with fame and being famous. I think both that time and our current moment are periods of great anxiety. I do think John’s breakthrough in Bermuda and Buddy’s smaller one on his new show offer proof that there are second acts in American life, albeit quieter ones.

What are you working on next?
A novel that takes place within the world of movies. But I’m still scratching out the particulars. More news to come.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Dakota Winters.

Author photo by Sven Wiederholt.

Tom Barbash’s third novel, The Dakota Winters, sets a 20-something’s coming of age in a richly drawn New York City in 1979, as he struggles to come to terms with and step out of his exuberant father’s shadow. We chatted with Barbash about writing this colorful novel and what comes next.

Tom Barbash surveys the New York City of The Dakota Winters through 23-year-old Anton’s eyes. We glimpse the country during the transitional moment of 1979, with Ted Kennedy’s bid for the Democratic nomination, the transit and sanitation strikes, the serial killers and the underground clubs. We also get an inside view of celebrity culture through Anton’s father, Buddy Winter, a late-night talk show host who recently snapped and walked off set during his monologue.

As the book opens, Anton has just returned home from the Peace Corps to heal from a case of malaria. Inadvertently joining his father’s attempt to re-enter the late-night game, Anton serves as Buddy’s “second brain” as he begins to prepare new material for an upcoming show. This role validates Anton professionally and troubles him personally, fueling a line of questions that will lead him to step into adulthood outside his father’s exuberant shadow.

Barbash at times leans too heavily on the specifics of his richly drawn New York setting, and ultimately, Anton’s story is eclipsed by references to the era’s celebrity culture. Anton operates behind the scenes of this culture, and because he exists neither within nor outside of it, he’s able to disappear at will. His moments of growth happen away from the city, such as when he takes a sailing trip with family friend John Lennon and tests his mettle during a wicked storm in the Gulf Stream. Even then, Anton’s sense of self takes second chair to his adoration of Lennon.

Throughout this colorful novel, questions loom of where Anton fits into the picture and how he can build a life apart from his father without rejecting the vibrant city he grew up in.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Tom Barbash for The Dakota Winters.

This article was originally published in the December 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Tom Barbash surveys the New York City of The Dakota Winters through 23-year-old Anton’s eyes. We glimpse the country during the transitional moment of 1979, with Ted Kennedy’s bid for the Democratic nomination, the transit and sanitation strikes, the serial killers and the underground clubs. We also get an inside view of celebrity culture through Anton’s father, Buddy Winter, a late-night talk show host who recently snapped and walked off set during his monologue.

With Friday Black, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah draws a connective thread through a collection of bleak and absurd short stories set in a satirical reality based on a socially and economically collapsing America.

The book leads with a parody of the present day, in which a chainsaw-wielding mass killer is exonerated for his racially motivated hate crime by a defense attorney who swoons a jury with invectives of “freedom.” Meanwhile, teenager Emmanuel troubles over his representative blackness on a 10-point scale as he takes part in the race riots immediately following the killer’s acquittal. Adjei-Brenyah deftly interweaves these two narratives to draw a parallel between the story’s stark reality and our own, illuminating the state of emergency that is blackness in present-day America.

After the opening story, Adjei- Brenyah pivots to a dystopian future in which the government has poisoned its own water supply. In this future, “emotional truth-clouding” is looked down on in favor of intelligence, pride and truthfulness.

The tales that follow are set along the timeline that stretches between these first two stories, from the near-future capitalist decline to the ensuing societal meltdown, offering up a bleak trajectory for humanity in which pride and profit slowly usurp care. The title story sees the narrator fighting off a zombified consumerist horde in the early hours of Black Friday. Trampling deaths and bite wounds are as normalized as the narrator’s disregard for the little remaining humanity of those infected with the “Friday Black.”

Each of Adjei-Brenya’s characters deals with the numbness that comes after the shock of death wears off—and the pain that arises when that shock doesn’t fade. This is a difficult read and a twisting meditation on a world where love’s gone missing.

 

This article was originally published in the November 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

With Friday Black, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah draws a connective thread through a collection of bleak and absurd short stories set in a satirical reality based on a socially and economically collapsing America.

At the heart of Idra Novey’s poetic second novel, Those Who Knew, is an inherently political story that reveals the nature of toxic masculinity and its effects on the world. While sussing out the manifold fears that drive men’s often destructive pursuit of power, Novey explores the strength of women—which is so often rejected and abused in that pursuit—and troubles over silence in the face of abuse.

A college professor living in an unnamed island nation, Lena is uneasy with her family’s wealth in the aftermath of the country’s former dictatorial regime. Her friend, Olga, who runs a bookstore doubling as a weed shop, is an older survivor of the Terrible Years, when she and her lover were imprisoned and abused. As news breaks of the death of a young woman named Maria P., Lena grows suspicious of the involvement of a rising senator, Victor, with whom she’d been romantically involved in their collegiate years. With nothing to go on but the mysteriously materializing articles of clothing that she is sure belonged to Maria, Lena begins to question her own silence in the years since Victor nearly took Lena’s life in an enraged outburst.

Throughout this meditation on the role of silence, the story weaves together Olga’s daily bookshop log, news reports and interviews, ongoing scenes from Victor’s brother’s autobiographical stage plays and multiple points of view to present a world as richly nuanced as it is lacking in specifics of place and time.

With this novel, Novey provides a depiction of true strength through the community of survivors—those who have withstood tragedies enacted against them by powerful people who ultimately feared their own powerlessness.

 

This article was originally published in the November 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

At the heart of Idra Novey’s poetic second novel, Those Who Knew, is an inherently political story that reveals the nature of toxic masculinity and its effects on the world. While sussing out the manifold fears that drive men’s often destructive pursuit of power, Novey explores the strength of women—which is so often rejected and abused in that pursuit—and troubles over silence in the face of abuse.

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