Adam Gopnik’s fans have endured an awful dry spell since 2000, when Paris to the Moon, the longtime New Yorker essayist’s previous collection, saw publication. His refined, observant prose made the recounted experience of actually living and raising a child in quite possibly the world’s most romanticized city both resonant and recognizable. Now, having spent the subsequent half-decade in New York, quite possibly the world’s second-most romanticized city, he’s put out a spiritual sequel – a new backdrop, a new character in the form of a small daughter – in Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York.
As parents of students abroad inevitably discover, extended stays in France tend to have long-term effects on the visitor, not all of them positive. Gopnik’s penchant for building grand questions and statements out of the rarely examined stuff of everyday life is now in top gear. Perhaps taking a cue from his Continental colleagues, he’s enthusiastically embraced shopworn devices such as the startling contradiction, the majestic juxtaposition and the epic inference. This is not always to the good of the piece – the sociological blustering pioneered by genuinely French commentators is, disappointingly, not entirely absent – but, tempered by Gopnik’s characteristic restraint and uncertainty, it makes for a fascinating verbal lens through which to view existence in New York.
Indeed, if the well-traveled, Canadian-born Gopnik has a stylistic angle here, it’s that of a uniquely international perspective on uniquely New York happenings. This might sound tiring, and sometimes it is; four Thanksgiving-themed pieces, for instance, stretch out into desperate-sounding attempts to extract far-reaching meaning from events, and speculation on what was revealed by the reaction to September 11th comes off as obligatory. Luckily, ambitious meandering proves to be the exception rather than the rule – moment after moment, rich reflection after unexpected truth, Gopnik proves that he really is good enough to pull off this exploration of essentially familiar ground.
At their best, the book’s essays comment simultaneously upon the vagaries of both parenthood and New York residence while extrapolating them to general human experience. Gopnik’s years with an eccentric octogenarian analyst make a fine slice of humor, but the recollection functions equally well as a consideration of how life itself should be approached. It takes real skill to build anything out of the ramblings of an old Freudian whose ultimate piece of advice is the suggestion that “life has many worthwhile aspects,” and Gopnik proves his possession of it. Equally engaging are his thoughts on the nature of learning, teaching and expertise, the best of which arise in “Last of the Metrozoids,” a masterful account of art historian Kirk Varnedoe’s final months spent coaching young Luke Gopnik’s team of eight-year-old football players.
As in Paris to the Moon, Luke – now older and, in a certain precocious, pre-adolescent way, wiser – is a prominent presence, appearing in order to put things into perspective whenever his father finds himself entangled in convoluted contemplation. Olivia, the daughter, plays the mirror, reflecting the supposed absurdities of the New York lifestyle by way of childhood mimicry. Alas, wife Martha remains a vaguely-defined character sketch, though she provides a welcome almost-foil to the author when the time comes to address the common big parenting decisions, such as what to do when you find the beloved goldfish, a New York kid’s pet if there ever was one, floating.
One suspects, however, that the real main character is the quintessential bustling metropolis itself. However, it is through the mere humans that the essence of this “protagonist” most clearly emerges. The book contains a handful of remarks on the design, history and appearance of the city – a few previously published articles of a more journalistic nature are wedged in, none of which sit particularly well alongside the rest of the material – but it’s in the words and actions of Gopnik, his friends and his family that New York truly comes through. Despite its slow points and hitches, Through the Children’s Gate amounts to one of the most eloquent, observant accounts of parenting and New York life in recent memory. That so many have long since assumed those wells dry is a testament to Gopnik’s mastery of his craft.