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New York Days, New York Nights by Stephen Brook (Atheneum: $14.95; 285 pp.)

May 05, 1985|SAM HALL KAPLAN | Kaplan, The Times' urban design critic, is a native New Yorker, who for eight years covered the city as a reporter for the New York Times. and

There is no advice in this engrossing guide to New York City where to find a comfortable, inexpensive, accessible hotel in Manhattan, on how much to tip a Park Avenue doorman, who, on a rainy day, steps out into a foot of water to wave down a cab for you, or other such tidbits for the traveler. Instead, London-bred and Cambridge-coddled Stephen Brook has written a travel book in the tradition of the not-so innocent Englishman abroad exploring an alien culture and indulging himself and his readers in its rites.

Brook emersed himself in Manhattan, playing journalist, visiting public hospitals, private schools, depressing courtrooms and oppressive prisons; interviewing politicians, lawyers, Realtors, bankers, intellectuals, taxicab drivers and just about anyone else who would talk to him; attending gallery openings, religious services, concerts and the opera; touring landmarks; grabbing lunch; having drinks; hailing cabs; riding the subway; jogging in Central Park, and cruising single and gay bars. In short, Brook lived in New York instead of just visiting it.

And, he used his time well. The incidents, accidents, interviews and insights are nicely structured and paced in a series of scenes related in that peculiar British blend of bemusement and wit, which tended for Brook to compensate for his occasional confusion and contradictions. There also are hints of a personal life that lend him character beyond that of a supercilious voyeur.

What emerges is more of a respect for the city than a love. "The great cities of Europe invite you to rest and stroll as well as to work and prosper. Not so New York," writes Brook. "You have to fight the city constantly, carving out your own space. When you're feeling jaunty and high, full of zest, Manhattan will back you up, opening the door to pleasure and wonder. But when your spirits are low, or when you're caught in a tangle of sadness and heartache, the city won't offer you any relief, as it asserts that the race goes unwavering on even if you choose to stand aside for a while. New York can render you invisible . . . ."

Brook understands that to survive and come to terms with New York, one needs more than a compilation of the right hotels, restaurants, shops and sights. One needs the right attitude and a high energy level, both of which Brook demonstrates well in his very personal guide to an impersonal city.

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