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Adam Gopnik

Brigitte Lacombe

At the Strangers’ Gate: Arrivals in New York
Adam Gopnik
Knopf Canada

A few years ago, I had lunch with a fellow non-fiction writer, who was then in his late 50s. Talk turned to the most recent issue of The New Yorker, and an exquisitely written essay about the humbling experience of learning to paint in late middle-age.

The writer, who is one of Montreal's ablest poets, sighed and told me: "When I grow up, I want to write like Adam Gopnik."

I chuckled. I knew exactly what he meant. I first read Gopnik in the mid-nineties, when The New Yorker sent him to France to do a stint as a kind of premillennium Janet Flanner. I remember studying Gopnik's Paris Journal – which covered the rites of haute couture, his role in a campaign to save his favourite Rue des Écoles brasserie and his son's love of the carousel in the Luxembourg Gardens – and marvelling at his panache. Here was a formidable stylist, in the tradition of E.B. White, James Thurber and Wolcott Gibbs, with a talent for the perfectly landed aphorism, the withering ex cathedra dismissal and the impeccably phrased aperçu. Gopnik joined the strengths of the anonymous Talk Of The Town contributor, that self-effacing listener to the city and its people, with the rigour of a cultural critic capable of deconstructing any emerging meme. Part tumler (his self-characterization, from the Yiddish for a "step right up, folks" spieler), part belletrist, he could apparently write about anything and make it shine.

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Gopnik, I agreed with my lunch companion that day, was the most grown-up writer I could think of.

The challenge a metropolitan stylist of Gopnik's calibre faces is continuing to grow. New York both fostered and discarded Damon Runyon, Dorothy Parker and Emily Hahn, whose distinct voices were associated with particular eras in the life of the metropolis. (Gotham can also silence writers, the most notorious instance being Joseph Mitchell, who, after writing Joe Gould's Secret, reported to his New Yorker office for more than 30 years without having any significant work published.) Gopnik's best books suggested he was unlikely to become one of the discarded. Both Paris to the Moon, which collected his dispatches from France, and Through the Children's Gate, about his family's return to post-9/11 Manhattan, consolidated his strengths as a listener to the city, while conveying the joys and anxieties of raising kids in the city. Becoming a father in middle age was a gift to Gopnik: A mature and observant writer, he made the period of accelerated growth that is parenthood glow on the page.

His latest, At the Strangers' Gate, is a different kind of book. Instead of extending an invitation to share adventures in the contemporary big city, Gopnik asks readers, as Patti Smith did in Just Kids, to accompany him to another decade; in this case, the eighties, when he and his wife first made their way in New York. While some of the book's episodes were first published in The New Yorker, most were adapted from his onstage performances at The Moth, a Manhattan storytelling group.

We are in the realm of the literary memoir, the evocation of a period formative in the life of the author and – the author hopes – the world's cultural life. Gopnik wants to do for Ronald Reagan-era Manhattan what Malcolm Cowley did for the thirties in The Dream of the Golden Mountains and what Ernest Hemingway did for Jazz Age Paris in A Movable Feast. The problem is that Gopnik is not convinced that much of enduring value was being produced in the postironic eighties, particularly in the art world toward which he gravitated. Although he shared tables in SoHo with Jeff Koons and Julian Schnabel, he saw their work as a triumph of ambition over lasting merit. Nor was he inclined, constitutionally or temperamentally, to plunge into the decade's nightlife.

"Two glasses of wine had me blotto," he writes, before confessing that he never tried – was never offered! – cocaine. (The eighties without excess is like Bright Lights, Big City without the drugs: It doesn't leave you with much, apart from some ephemeral art and a wine critic for House & Garden.) While the young Hemingway lashed his prose in a Boulevard Saint-Michel café with plantation rum as a prelude to a night of absinthe drinking with Joyce or Fitzgerald, a twentysomething Gopnik, after delivering a seminar report on Picasso, drinks a single Black Russian and passes out on the floor of Bemelmans Bar. Had Gopnik had the constitution, or inclination, to stay out later, when the drinks and confidences really started to flow, this would be a very different book.

The woman he came home to every night – early – was Martha Parker, the romantic centre of his life. "In a decade of cocaine and punk," Gopnik writes, "we were champagne and Gershwin." They met in Montreal, where his parents, McGill professors who were aficionados of modernism, raised him and his five siblings in one of the brutalist cubes of Moshe Safdie's Habitat 67. The city they leave behind is one present-day Montrealers will be amused to encounter: Gopnik recalls it as being like Fitzgerald's St. Paul, a genteel haven of "sweetness" and "provincialism" whose highlights are Ogilvy's department store and the ninth-floor dining room of Eaton's.

Yet the New York they come to never really existed, except in fond imagination. Gopnik aspires to be an amalgam of E.B. White and Lorenz Hart, Parker a documentary filmmaker. They find an apartment at First Avenue and 87th Street that measures nine by 11 feet. (We can be sure of this, because these dimensions are introduced as a novel fact three times – one of the many repetitions that may come from the book's origins in staged readings.) In tribute to a Rodgers and Hart show tune, they name it the Blue Room. It is only many years later, when Gopnik hears the full lyric, that he realizes Hart was imagining lovers sharing a bedroom in an enormous West Side apartment, not a cockroach-infested mouse hole in Yorkville.

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The price of admission to the metropolis, for the aspirant writer, is squalor. The Blue Room is left behind for a loft in a former SoHo candy factory, whose ceilings drip with caramel, which serves as an attractant for rats ("as big as cats," as New Yorkers are fond of saying; we learn much about the local vermin in At the Strangers' Gate). Gopnik finds work as a docent at the Museum of Modern Art, where he hones his tumler chops, explicating van Gogh canvases, through the lens of anecdote and biography, to noontime visitors. And New York rewards those who soldier through poverty: Gopnik gets a job as a fashion-page editor at GQ; photographer Richard Avedon becomes a father figure; his first pieces are published in The New Yorker.

Through it all is Parker, beautiful, aesthetically inclined, calm. She is a champion sleeper, he a world-class insomniac. There are intimations of unrest, but either they came to nothing, or Gopnik is too chivalrous to amplify on them. They are a happy couple; the biggest quarrel occurs when Gopnik insists on serving her tuna au poivre rare rather than well done. The problem with happiness, as Martin Amis has observed, is that it writes white; it doesn't show up on the page. Gopnik frets that his uxoriousness will be interpreted as crowing. That's not the issue; it's just that, in spite of his efforts to make happiness swing, it reads bland. Parker becomes a figurine in ivory, lovely but static.

Gopnik's writing, at its best, maintains a dynamic tension between elegance and wisdom, between the true and the lovely. Yet the aphorisms and observations he produces in striving for "wild exactitude," to put "those ten right words in that one right order," often fall flat. "Human beings," he writes, "can't help admiring something well made." (Yes, but many humans will take a Twinkie over a profiterole.) "Rock musicians lived on fast food and M&Ms." (David Bowie might have objected.) "It isn't whom we meet in life that matters, it's when we meet them." (A significant encounter, surely, is about both identity and timing.)

Attaining to wisdom in the metropolis, that factory of distracting new forms of loveliness, has often proved a challenge to writers. Leonard Cohen, for one, came, had a look around, and moved on. ("Those were the reasons and that was New York / We were running for the money and the flesh …") Alice Munro, whom Parker adores, eschewed the metropolis altogether – and ended up winning the Nobel Prize for her short stories about sweet, provincial, small-town Ontario.

At the Strangers' Gate is a lovely, charming – and, sporadically, wise – book. But wisdom, for a writer, lies in recognizing one's strengths. Gopnik, a determined supplicant, rather than a transformational protagonist, in the big city, avoided the path of excess. That was certainly a wise choice, but it does make him a lukewarm memoirist. He remains a brilliant listener to the city.

I can't wait to read what he hears next.

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Taras Grescoe (@grescoe) is the author of Shanghai Grand: Forbidden Love and International Intrigue on the Eve of the Second World War. He lives in Montreal.

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