At the Stranger’s Gate by Adam Gopnik review – a prose stylist on New York

A memoir by the New Yorker staff writer becomes overburdened with ease. It is least successful when he reflects on home and married life

I never tried cocaine,” Adam Gopnik admits in his latest memoir. “I don’t think I was even offered cocaine. Or maybe I was, and was so dim that I didn’t know it was cocaine I was being offered.”

With that admission, readers will deduce that punk, grit, flash and excess will be missing from this account of New York in the 1980s. With sneakers on his feet and Sting on his Walkman, Gopnik’s former self sets out into the city, confident in who he is and what he will ingest: champagne, mostly, as well as a lot of Rhône valley wines, accompanied by Gershwin. This alchemical mixture will hopefully allow him to emerge as his desired New York self: “some odd amalgam of EB White and Lorenz Hart”.

In a way, Gopnik succeeded. His faithful readers know he is a throwback where it counts – a believer in, and a reviver of, the essay. Over the years, he has used the form to investigate an array of subjects for the New Yorker, from gun control to the cronut, Trollope, atheism and Joseph Cornell. He has enlivened and infused his work with musicality, partly because Gopnik is, by his own admission, a “sentence-fetishist – an epigram monger, at times even an aphorist-hoarder”, which might explain the self-aware and unimpeachable craftsmanship of his constructions.

Gopnik’s sentences build into paragraphs that are architectural feats. In his Paris to the Moon, an account of his years as a correspondent in the French capital, his thoughts wind and probe and come to rest at the end of a paragraph, sometimes with a strategic clatter, sometimes with a mark as light as the soft paw print of some unexpected animal. He was at his best observing the workings of the exotic creatures of late 20th‑century Paris. As a cultural translator, his pronouncements on French culture were graceful and weighted with lived experience – the opposite of smash-and-grab travel writing.

The Stranger’s Gate begins much earlier. It traces his path to New York from a comfortable Montreal upbringing to the extra-small shoebox apartment, nicknamed the Blue Room, he shares with his new wife, Martha, as well as the baked cockroaches retrieved from the three-ring stove he uses to cook ambitious French meals. After false-start jobs at the Frick and MoMA, Gopnik brings his knowledge as an aspiring art historian to GQ magazine’s style pages. It’s here, with the help of Martha, he coins a two-word phrase, which is quoted, blown up and put on display in a store. While wandering Barney’s he sees his own creation, “Chiaroscuro Chic” and feels, for the first time, that “sneaky delight of seeing the words strike home”. It’s a hint of how New York’s art and commerce commingle in seductive ways.

New York memoirs fill a groaning library shelf. What sets this effort apart are both the well-worked sentences and the unchallenging nature of the protagonist’s journey. Some chapters originated as spoken-word contributions to storytelling collective the Moth and have gained the smooth sheen of mythmaking anecdote – polished and adorned with deprecation. In the recollections he chooses to convey, Gopnik presents himself as a man who is never not succeeding.

Gopnik with his wife, Martha Parker, whose image remains unwavering throughout his memoir.
Gopnik with his wife, Martha Parker … her image remains unwavering throughout his memoir. Photograph: Patrick McMullan via Getty Images Photograph: Patrick McMullan/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

At GQ: “They needed someone to edit the fashion pages, and, my qualifications for this job being exactly zero, I got it.” When he becomes tight with the acclaimed photographer Richard Avedon, he acknowledges: “The experience of being adopted by a charismatic mentor … is not the experience that everyone who comes to New York gets.” After securing a SoHo loft, he wonders: “Why had we been given the golden ticket of a small but beautiful loft and with stabilized rent, too?” There are occasional head fakes towards a different type of experience. When a viscous liquid leaks from the wall of the loft, it seems for a moment the stronger edges of New York are pushing in. But the mysterious drippings are molasses. The building is an old candy factory. In Gopnik’s version of his past, sweetness oozes.

The resulting sections show the self-described “garrulous stylist” cursed by his own pleasant material. His sentences become overburdened with ease. The book is a tale of ascendancy, but also a celebration of Martha. He gazes on her as she sleeps. He describes her more memorable dresses. Her image remains unwavering throughout: here she is crying in support as he gives talks at MoMA; here she is “discreetly reaching out to put my glass beyond the reach of a repour” at an important dinner; here she is helping him with his understanding of fashion. It’s odd to find a person this important to a memoir pushed – with grace and appreciation and love, but still pushed – into ornamental supporting status. “I’m so relieved,” Avedon exclaims to Gopnik on meeting her for the first time. “I was thinking all week: What if she’s a lemon?” Gopnik at one point assures us, jokingly: “She is in possession of a querulous prose style of her own and the promise of a bitter memoir yet to be written.” What if?

He is also compelled to mention “the strange and slightly panicked duty” of writing something about their sex life, which begs the question: why is this a duty? Who is demanding this? The searching and questioning he’d effortlessly lend to other subjects is completely absent, leaving in its place stylish evasiveness and a lack of vulnerability. “All I can recall from that time is unending erotic desire,” he finally writes. “I can’t recall a single erotic act.” Instead he provides a comparison between married sex and civil war reenactment.

He takes the New Yorker’s Joseph Mitchell out to lunch and quizzes him about the secret to good writing. After trying to swat Gopnik away with some humorous answers, Mitchell finally relents and offers up the wonderful phrase “wild exactitude”. In the chapter he dedicates to the art scene the 80s, Gopnik regains some of this exactitude, and offers up descriptions of Soho gallery life as well as the kind of thoughtful explanation not often applied to the works of Jeff Koons and David Salle. Theirs was, after all, “the stuff that floated” in the 80s. “It was the shopped-for, thought-through, ingeniously fabricated cold acts of the cynical imagination.”

When he’s out in the art world, Gopnik, instead of relaying self-burnishing anecdotes, listens and reacts. His argument for modern art is reliably elegant. Betting against it “is always a fool’s errand”, he writes, “not because all new art is good, but because somewhere in it lies – like it or not, believe it or not – the psychic image of its time”. Away from his descriptions of success and the material of his home life, Gopnik’s strengths re-emerge. He is investigative again, tracing this psychic image of his own time, his own New York, always certain of his findings.

  • At The Stranger’s Gate: Arrivals in New York by Adam Gopnik (Quercus, £20). To order a copy for £17, go to guardianbookshop.comor call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.

Contributor

Craig Taylor

The GuardianTramp

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