Readers of The New Yorker who relish each issue that contains an Adam Gopnik essay will be delighted that 20 of them have been collected in this rich offering of his work. Those unacquainted with Gopnik's graceful and allusive prose are likely to become instant fans.
Taking its title from the name of the Central Park entrance at Seventy-sixth Street and Fifth Avenue, the collection is unified by Gopnik's captivating insights into the lives of his precocious children, Luke and Olivia, as they adapt to life in their new home. That focus is apt, for, he observes, about the Upper West Side world into which they settle, comfortably but not entirely without unease, "a constant obsessive-compulsive anxiety about children --- their health, their future, the holes in their socks, and the fraying of their psyches --- is taken entirely for granted here."
In September 2000 Gopnik and his family returned to New York, after five years in Paris that provided the material for his acclaimed book PARIS TO THE MOON. In that time, he notes, "The map of the city we carried just five years ago hardly corresponds to the city we know today, while the New Yorks we knew before that are buried completely." That first autumn is portrayed as an idyllic time, its innocence made more poignant when viewed backwards through the lens of 9/11.
Two of the pieces, "The City and the Pillars" and "Urban Renewal," deal explicitly with the events of that day and its aftermath, but the fear and anxiety it engendered shadow much of Gopnik's narrative. In a characteristically arresting metaphor that captures the profound and yet curious effect the terrorist attacks had on the city, he notes, "It's as though the sinking of the Titanic had taken place right beside a subway station and been watched by a frightened or curious crowd who saw something unbelievable, the great ship listing and rising up and breaking in two and the people falling from the funnel, and then walked home from the disaster and showed their families that their hands were still cold from touching the iceberg." Yet despite the disaster, Gopnik writes, New Yorkers "learned to live on one foot, hopping along spiritually in more or less normal times." Again, he returns to his theme of children and families: "The real question that pressed itself upon us as parents was how to let our children live in joy in a time of fear, how to give light enough to live in when what we saw were so many shadows."
The New York life Gopnik sketches in these essays is anything but unremittingly anxious or bleak. There are numerous moments of sly humor that leaven the more serious essays. Readers will chuckle as Gopnik, at best a casually observant Jew, grapples with the task of crafting a presentation about the Jewish holiday of Purim. His description of the unintended consequences of a "no-screen" weekend, as he and another father try to wean their sons from computers and video games, is hilarious. And few readers will be able to stifle the urge to "LOL" as fortysomething Gopnik is initiated by his son into the world of instant messaging.
Gopnik also proves himself an erudite companion as he discourses on such subjects as the decline of the New York department store, the revival of Times Square and the story behind the Bill Evans Trio jazz classic, "Sunday at the Village Vanguard." While the collection is decidedly Manhattan-centric, he does leave the island briefly to introduce readers to the bizarre phenomenon of the wild parrots of Flatbush.
Not every essay in the book hits the mark. "The Cooking Game," a description of a contest in which several prominent chefs prepare a meal with ingredients selected by Gopnik, suffers from an uncharacteristically narrow focus. "Death of a Fish" treads perilously close to the line of undue sentimentality. Yet these minor stumbles are more than offset by "Last of the Metrozoids," the understated and moving account of the death of Kirk Varnedoe, Gopnik's close friend and a noted art historian, as he delivers his final lectures and coaches, painstakingly and lovingly, Luke and his eight-year-old teammates on the Giant Metrozoids football team.
Like all accomplished essayists, Adam Gopnik excels in moving seamlessly from the particular to the universal and back again. New York is too multifaceted a place to be captured in any single work, but THROUGH THE CHILDREN'S GATE is a generous and warmhearted place to start.
--- Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg