At home in the big city
For Adam Gopnik, as both writer and dad, there is no better spot than New York.
When Adam Gopnik was a young man first living in New York City, he had an experience that now belongs to the annals of history: He underwent psychoanalysis with a true German-born Freudian. "It may be worth recalling," Gopnik writes, "if only in the way that it would be interesting to hear the experiences of the last man mesmerized or the last man to be bled with leeches."
It was probably, Gopnik notes, one of the least successful psychoanalyses ever attempted. It seems that the most he ever got from his 80-something mental health practitioner were restaurant recommendations for a trip to Venice and statements of the doctor's admiration of various celebrities. ("She is very well defended," he would say admiringly of someone like Susan Sontag.)
In Gopnik's hands, however, this experience becomes an essay that is ultimately as sad and tender as it is funny, concluding with a final summation from the good German doctor: "So you see, Adam, in retrospect, life has many worthwhile aspects."
The same might be said of Gopnik's delightful Through the Children's Gate, a collection of essays (several of which were previously published in The New Yorker) dealing with life in New York City, and most particularly with the experience of raising children there. The essays touch on many of the more worthwhile aspects of life (home, family, friendship, the small pleasures of daily life in a city that you love.) You don't have to be a New Yorker or even necessarily an enthusiast of the city to be alternately amused, touched, and charmed by Gopnik's well-crafted pieces.
As a writer for The New Yorker, Gopnik left New York for Paris for five years (and wrote the wonderful "Paris to the Moon" about those experiences). But as his children grew to school age, both Gopnik and his wife felt a desire to return home and so in 2000 they landed back in New York and set about looking for a home for their young family.
The essay "A Hazard of No Fortune" wrings the requisite amount of humor out of the search for a habitable space in New York. Gopnik notes that looking for an apartment in New York is "potentially fatal, like scaling Everest." Adding an interesting literary twist to what seems to be an entirely contemporary real estate horror story, Gopnik harks back to the forgotten "A Hazard of New Fortunes," a William Dean Howells novel, to prove that looking for an apartment in New York was every bit as traumatic over a century ago as it is today.
In the book's title essay, Gopnik devotes space to analyzing the new New York – a freshly suburbanized place where "it was now the drug addicts and transvestites and artists who were left muttering about the undesirable, short element taking over the neighborhood" – children.
But Gopnik and his family don't have long to enjoy this family-friendly version of Gotham before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 cast a pall over their lives. Gopnik writes of the day of the attacks and the aftermath in several of the essays, but really from thereon in, "Through the Children's Gate" – at least, the best of it – is about the fragility of all that we love most, including childhood, friendship, and, in Gopnik's case, New York City itself.
Gopnik is at his best as a writer when he stays closest to his heart. There are also enjoyable essays on the wild parrots of Brooklyn ("Power and the Parrot"), fine dining ("The Cooking Game"), and the death of department stores ("Under One Roof"), but the truly memorable pieces in the book tend to be the ones most closely tied to the author's personal experience.
He writes deftly – with a neatly calibrated balance of wit and pathos – of the loss of a family pet ("Death of a Fish"), the last days of Kurt Varnedoe the art historian, one of Gopnik's best friends, and – briefly – his son's football coach ("Last of the Metrozoids"), and the way it feels to watch your child in a school production of "Peter Pan" ("First Thanksgiving: Densities").
There is also a hilarious and poignant piece ("Bumping into Mr. Ravioli") about his daughter Olivia's imaginary friend Charlie Ravioli, a friend so busy that they can connect only by cellphone. (When it reaches the point where Olivia can no longer reach Charlie himself directly and can talk only with his assistant, Laurie, the Gopniks consult Adam's sister, a child psychologist. She tells them emphatically that, outside New York, children's imaginary friends don't have assistants. " 'I think you should move,' she said flatly.")
One of the chief pleasures of "Through the Children's Gate" is the way it combines Gopnik's urbane wit with a kind of sweet vulnerability that seems to come at us from another century. In the book's closing essay, "Last Thanksgiving: Immensities," Gopnik writes of the special affinity he feels for a book called "A London Child of the 1870s" and there is, indeed, a good deal in "Through the Children's Gate" that – despite Charlie Ravioli and his cellphone – somehow manages to evoke the feel of cultured, middle-class life in any lovely, major European city a century or so ago.
There is also much here that is universal, particularly the acknowledgement of the sweetness of parenthood – a joy marred only by the knowledge that it won't last, that the children, even at their youngest and most precious stages, are already preparing to leave.
In the end, Gopnik gives the final word to the Freudian: "Life does have many worthwhile aspects, but the trouble is that the really worthwhile ones are worth too much and last only a while. That the dear doctor forgot to say," he laments.
Transient though life's pleasures may be, for Gopnik there has been for some decades now at least one enduring thread of joy and that is his feeling for New York.
He tells of the night he first fell in love with the city and adds, "Through it all that first feeling, on a night forty years ago, remains my major feeling: I am so pleased to be here that I can hardly believe I am." Fortunately, it's a pleasure that readers anywhere can share.
• Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to Marjorie Kehe.