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.
This possibility of generational conflict in Through the Children’s Gate inspires an anticipatory glee, even as the idea of “children and the city” forebodes a startling absence of sex. “Your children make their own maps, which enlarge and improve your own,” Gopnik instructs, proving who’ll be wearing the pants in this book. Gopnik and his wife do their best to make love in the afternoon; more than once, he takes note of how worn-out all the Upper East Side moms are looking these days: “Clothes, bags, shoes, all of that Capote and Dawn Powell stuff seems to have vanished from them.” Gopnik has come home from Paris not only to parenthood but to reality.
In one of the most colorful essays, “Man Goes to See a Doctor,” Gopnik’s eulogy for youth is embedded in his eulogy for his psychoanalyst. “The point of analysis was, I see now, to prepare me for fatherhood by supplying a patriarchal model,” he writes. Though his problems admittedly include “nothing interesting,” his shrink, a wise German émigré named Dr. Grosskurth, is blissfully anything but boring. Their gossipy sessions ranged from Gopnik’s tribulations to those of Norman Mailer and Woody Allen, and even The New York Review of Books.
Like most writers, Gopnik is at his best when he has a fresh and specific subject at his disposal. His rambling thoughts on parenthood or exercise or “slowness” give him too much freedom to spin air-filled sentences on the obvious and overly generalized; in his essay about Times Square, “Times Regained,” for example, he lazily calls anything that’s not a chain store a “weird store.” (Art gallery? Weird store.) His semi-reported pieces, however, particularly those focusing on Olivia’s trials, result in genuine feeling and smart detail. She’s the star of The Gopnik Show.
For the first half of the book, silent Olivia wisely observes life from the Gopniks’ apartment window. When she finally speaks, it’s in “Bumping Into Mr. Ravioli,” perhaps the best piece in the book, not because it’s cute–but because it’s not cute. “Bumping Into Mr. Ravioli” introduces the 3-year-old’s imaginary friend. She calls him, with what sounds like the toughness of a Brooklyn Mafia don, simply Ravioli. You can’t help but imagine her all gesticulations and Marlon Brando frowns. “We had coffee, but then he had to run,” she says of Ravioli. “He canceled lunch. Again.”
Olivia’s imaginary playmate is too busy to play with her. And he’s a critic. “Ravioli read your book,” she says to her father. “He didn’t like it much.” And then, as if nothing could seem more New York than that, Gopnik unveils the Second Fake Friend: “‘Laurie, tell Ravioli I’m calling,’ I heard Olivia say. I pressed her about who, exactly, Laurie was. Olivia shook her head. ‘She works for Ravioli,’ she said.”
All of this lovely comedy leads to some of Gopnik’s smartest analysis about the miseries of modern urban life and why his small daughter might have dreamed up a Type-A Italian heartbreaker and his secretary as her closest compatriots. “We exit the apartment into a still-dense nineteenth-century grid of street corners and restaurants full of people,” he writes of New York’s oppressive confluence of the Old World and the hypermodern, “and come home to the late-twentieth-century grid of faxes and e-mails and overwhelming incompleteness.” Gopnik, rendered helpless by his child’s cynicism, flashes some of his own soul. “We build rhetorical baffles around our lives to keep the crowding out, only to find that we have let nobody we love in.”
Too often, though, the writer forgoes both humor and insight for a self-satisfaction he can’t shake. In “First Thanksgiving: Densities,” he and his wife and other parents at Luke’s school conspire to make their kids fly in a production of Peter Pan. (Gopnik describes the school, which he calls “Artists & Anglers,” this way: “Each class seems beautifully devised–a core of creative people’s children, a sample of richer children, a frosting of minorities,” giving the reader some idea of what paradise looks like to Condé Nast writers.) This entire charade–the parents’ meetings, the physics of flying children–portends ludicrousness. Gopnik, instead, earnestly locates what’s sweet about it. “The willingness of New York parents is bracing compared with the aloofness of French parents, or even of earlier generations of American parents. They will do anything to make their children fly,” he writes, italics his, and he’s serious.
Later, after much child-flight deliberation, a mischievous parent breaks the mold: “Why don’t we just push them off a high place? They might fly.” Readers of Through the Children’s Gate will clap their hands at this shot of irreverence–Whee! Normal parental exasperation and human wickedness! Gopnik then dumps water on their heads: “The smile that went around the room was not a mordant one of knowledge,” Gopnik writes, “but a happy one of promise: Our kids just might.”
The kids, by the way, don’t actually fly–or, in other words, feel any sort of rush of freedom. They only appear to fly for the benefit of their parents sitting in the audience. “But to us, the house in Peter Pan looks like an unobtainable idyll of domestic pleasure, a place to fly to,” Gopnik writes in a typical paean to real estate.
Throughout the book, Gopnik weighs in on New York’s over-gentrified, Victoria Secreted evolution, and on New Yorkers’ collective nostalgia for the city’s grunge years. New York is overrun with children, he writes, but that’s not the real problem after all. Children like Olivia, ultimately, make better conversationalists than any you’ll find in Williamsburg, anyway. When a man curses loudly, screaming the F-word, she says to her father, “Daddy, aren’t you glad to be back in Yew Nork?” and you want to buy Olivia a beer.
The problem with present-day New York à la Gopnik is that it’s overrun with smug New York parents. Members of this very special class feel as far from real life as Gopnik’s map does from the actual streets of the city. Liberal, creative, “precariously” wealthy moms and dads bury themselves in the manageable problems of private school, the rewards of family-sized apartments and the terrifying task of protecting two small citizens against a metropolis of threats both justifiable and justifiably imaginary. Once upon a time these New Yorkers went through those gates to that Central Park playground, and were forever lost to the city.