New Yorkers may never forgive Adam Gopnik for writing, days after September 11, that the haze drifting north from Ground Zero smelled like an Italian delicacy. The essay, “The City and the Pillars,” appeared in The New Yorker, where Gopnik has been a staff writer for many years. Devastated readers likely had looked to this literary security blanket to make sense of their personal apocalypse. Charged with this weighty task, Gopnik broke the news in high tones that Uptown, where he lived, was coping with the attacks more elegantly than Downtown.
“The smell, which fills the empty streets of SoHo from Houston to Canal,” he wrote, “blew uptown on Wednesday night and is not entirely horrible from a reasonable distance–almost like the smell of smoked mozzarella, a smell of the bubble time.” Gopnik was curiously reminded of prosperity and boom times, of cheese, by the odor of violent death. “Gopnik has a skill for shrinking everything in the universe to the scale of a bourgeois amenity,” Leon Wieseltier, not a New Yorker, wrote in The New Republic.
During those awful days, it was easy to be outraged. Though when Michael Brick of the New York Times wrote recently that the peculiar 9/11 smell was of “Coke cans and hair on fire,” one felt a similar repugnance, and not because a smoking pyre can’t smell ordinary. The valiant literary struggle to say something new, the locked-in-the-study desire to experiment with language, in both cases came off as transparent and self-indulgent. You got the feeling that the writers spent a suspicious amount of time digging around in their brains. Gopnik’s blithe cold truths, born perhaps of emotional repression rather than emotional honesty, didn’t, and often don’t, ring true.
The effect is unsettling when you’re reading about one of the richest subjects a writer has the privilege of exploring: New York. It’s a place of endless yield. And yet in his new book, Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York, Gopnik meditates on a variety of well-harvested local topics: takeout menus, autumn, English speakers, taxi hailers, cooking, Times Square, Central Park and neighbors who complain about noise. “Everyone has a noise dispute story,” he writes in “First Thanksgiving: Densities.” Indeed. The book’s opening essay, another disquisition on “several New York truths,” begins, astoundingly, with a map. “To make a home in New York, we first have to find a place on the map of the city to make it in,” he writes, and never has New York, so pedantically mistaken for a piece of paper, felt so far away, so cruelly stripped of its spirit.
Gopnik’s central preoccupation in this book is the challenge, particularly after 9/11, of raising children in the city. (“The Children’s Gate” refers to the gates in Central Park.) In 2000 he and his wife, Martha, and their young children, Luke and Olivia, had returned from Paris, the subject of his previous memoir, Paris to the Moon, to find that “the city had been repopulated–some would say overrun–with children.” In the new, safe New York, kids on scooters and sneaker wheels, babies cosseted by hulking buggies and designer papooses in primary colors, rule the sidewalks. You can’t swing a cigarette without inviting the ire of a Mama Bear, who simultaneously manages to protect her cub and sneer at your sad habit.