Through the Children's Gate: A home in New York.
Adam Gopnik (2006, Alfred A. Knopf)
There's a natural occupational hazard to this reviewing business, viz, other reviews. The Atlantic's year-end roundup says this of Through the Children's Gate: "A collection of the longtime New Yorker writer's essays about his family's return to Manhattan after five years of living in France. If you like your provincial cosmopolitanism delivered in flawless prose, then this charming, insufferable book is for you."
As we say at my house, 'Busted.'
No, but wait, it is for you--what's insufferable about it is merely that Adam Gopnik and his family are quintessential Stroller People, the yuppie generation who discovered child-bearing after making enough money to try to do it in the City: Minivan People, but with subways and taxis. (As it turns out, that very delay in marriage and child-rearing is part of what keeps New York economically viable: the city runs on young people who are willing to spend a decade or more in the mating dance, and who can't picture trying to do it in New Jersey.) Provincial cosmopolitanism, otherwise known as a sense of place, is just part of the deal. If you spend any time in New York, you have your own mental map, which you re-draw every time you use it; Gopnik has added some pleasing new features to mine.
In some cases, Gopnik is marking the end of something that once defined New York--who goes in for Freudian analysis any more? What was the World Trade Center before it was a symbol of financial imperialism? (A place you went for petty bureaucratic chores.) What ever happened to the Jewish comic tradition? "The fly doing the backstroke in the soup was part of a kind of chicken-soup synchronized-swimming event, as ordered and regulated as an Olympic sport: Jewish New York manners were a thing anyone could imitate to indicate 'comedy.' "--including the Cambodian cashier at the local bagel store, bullying Gopnik into increasing his Sunday morning order, just the way they do it at Zabar's.
Adam and Martha are raising city children: their daughter's imaginary friend is too busy to play with her, though sometime they bump into each other, hop into a taxi, and grab some coffee, in roughly the same way that the baby on "The Simpsons" drives a car. When Olivia's fish dies, it's complicated, because "Bluie was not really a fish at all. He was, like so many New York fish and mice and turtles, a placeholder for other animals that the children would have preferred to have as pets, but which allergies and age and sheer self-preservation have kept their parents from buying." Apartment life also means noise: a herd of elephants always lives upstairs from somebody, with the inevitable complaints and defenses; having kids puts Gopnik on the side of the elephants, who have to live somewhere, after all.
Gopnik's lovely prose is complemented by his grasp of how his topics fit together. After the Twin Towers are destroyed, his seven-year-old son, Luke, takes solace in competitive chess. "Life is like chess only because in life, too, you seize on a short-term tactic, stick to it, and call it wisdom, until it stops working and you have to learn another." Luke also becomes a Yankees fan. "Someday I will tell him about twenty-six, twenty-seven Series victories, but not just now. I want him to root for something that might not always work out." Sportsmanship; children trusting adults because they have no choice; the father trying to reign in his own competitiveness about his boy's games; and the importance of tactics you can be good at, to make up for the long run which you can never control--it adds up to ten minutes of reading you can chew on for days.
These are domestic essays, not claiming any final answers, but I should let Gopnik have the last word: "Manners matter; children count out of all proportion to their size; and the poetic impulse, however small its objects, is usually saner than the polemical imperative, however passionate its certitudes."
Amen, and hallelujah.
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