Books

book review

New Yorker writer’s humblebrag memoir of coming-of-age in the city in ’80s

In “At the Stranger’s Gate,” New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik looks back on his move from Montreal to Manhattan with wife-to-be Martha Parker in the summer of 1980 and traces his circuitous approach to a career (and a bigger apartment) over the subsequent decade, when “all the bounds of money began to loosen . . . Most notions of equality dissolved, but so did most notions of gentility.” The blend of personal reminiscence and social observation will be familiar to readers of Gopnik’s previous two memoirs: the best-selling “Paris to the Moon,” which examines the particularities of French life through American eyes, and “Through the Children’s Gate,” which celebrates the complicated pleasures of raising kids in New York City.

“At the Stranger’s Gate” begins with the young couple squeezed into a 9- by 11-foot basement apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. He’s attending graduate school in art history but plans to be “some odd amalgam of E.B. White and Lorenz Hart, writing wry essays with one hand and witty lyrics with the other.” She’s at Columbia but will soon be working for documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker.

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Gopnik depicts their youthful adventures as representative of a generation that, unable to afford decent housing, instead spends money on food and clothes while waiting for their ambitions to be achieved. In fact, Gopnik and Parker luck into a rent-stabilized SoHo loft only three years later, by which time he has leapt from a copy-editing job to become the literary editor at GQ. Meanwhile, they have been “adopted by a charismatic mentor,” famed photographer Richard Avedon. As the author admits, this “is not the experience that everyone who comes to New York gets.” Indeed. Nor do most graduate students giving lunchtime lectures at the Museum of Modern Art for $50 a pop end up collaborating with MOMA’s chief curator, Kirk Varnedoe, on a much-publicized and controversial exhibit about the connections between modern art and popular culture.

Throughout the book, Gopnik is torn between his desire to self-deprecatingly proclaim “[m]y inadequacy as hero of the city or even the story” and his need to spotlight the hip social circles he moves in, name-dropping along the way artists David Salle, Eric Fischl, and Jeff Koons, as well as the art critic Robert Hughes, in addition to the aforementioned Avedon and Varnedoe. The unstated implication is that these important, interesting people sense the special qualities of our modest nonhero.

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Gopnik describes himself on more than one occasion as a simple storyteller whose only gift is for “spinning tales,” but simple stories are greatly outnumbered by blustery aphorisms along the lines of the “pieties of humanism often cover up the brutalities of ego” or “the distance between small spaces and big spaces was now so large that the emptiness had become resonant.” Though these head-scratchers are generally enfolded in paragraphs of elaborately crafted amplification, they don’t become much clearer in context. Nor do the metaphors that Gopnik runs into the ground. A meandering story about losing the pants to a designer suit he bought to match Parker’s “one beautiful dress” (we are frequently reminded that the impecunious couple “always lived beautifully . . . in the midst of lovely things”) concludes with three separate images in just two pages making the same murky point: “I would spend the rest of my life searching for my lost trousers . . . no matter how many suits I’ve bought since, I’m still missing the pants . . . I still feel that I walk through the world without trousers.” Or is it possible that sometimes missing trousers are just missing trousers?

If only he could relax and trust his keen eye for character and atmosphere. His loving description of SoHo’s cast-iron buildings, studded with specific detail, brings the neighborhood into sharp visual focus and culminates in a shrewd analysis of the architecture’s impact on the art made there that is mercifully less gnomic than usual. Character sketches of Avedon and Hughes are equally shrewd.

“At the Stranger’s Gate” closes with Gopnik and Parker deciding to have a baby and leave New York. Taking a sentimental farewell visit to their tiny basement apartment, they notice for the first time that their first home was next door to a funeral parlor, which prompts some musings on “the purpose of life, the presence of death.” Once again, Gopnik feels impelled to tell readers What It All Means.

AT THE STRANGERS’ GATE:

Arrivals in New York

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By Adam Gopnik

Knopf, 272 pp., $26.95

Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, reviews books for The Washington Post.
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