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The Big Apple of his eye

Through the Children's Gate A Home in New York Adam Gopnik Alfred A. Knopf: 324 pp., $25

October 22, 2006|Mark Doty | Mark Doty is the author of several books of poetry, including "School of the Arts," and the forthcoming memoir "Dog Years."

CITIES, at their best, are sources of renewal. They remind us that out of all the dross human beings make of the world, we can also make something intricate, layered, brimming with the force of life. As a species, we have made New York, and this in itself seems a reason to be hopeful about humankind. Both its glory and its degradation are the evidence of our presence, the measure of our accomplishment. If most of our urban and suburban creations lack Manhattan's restless and splendid cacophony, well, the place only needs to get under your skin once and it's there forever. The avenues and whizzing taxis, the stream of everyone and everything passing by and around you become what Walt Whitman in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" called the "dumb, beautiful ministers" of the soul.

Whitman wrote those words in 1856, and ever since writers have attempted to do some justice to the capital of modernity. No easy task, since an essential characteristic of New York City is its overwhelmingness; only a portion can be seen at any given time, only a bit of its teeming life written down, translated into words. No matter what, New York refuses to be encompassed, and in that way it partakes of the sublime.

Into the rush and pulse of this barely American island insert one Adam Gopnik, a writer newly returned, with family, from five years in the cool gray opacities of Paris. Manhattan, by contrast, is brash, noisy, optimistic, a world capital of impossible real estate. "I've lived elsewhere," he writes in his new book, "Through the Children's Gate: A Home in New York," "but nowhere else feels so entirely, so delusionally -- owing more to the full range of emotional energies it possesses than to the comforts it provides -- like home." What ensues is a detailed, rhapsodic and altogether satisfying chronicle of walking New York with a son and baby daughter, entering Central Park "through the children's gate" -- which lends this coherent collection of essays its title.

The longtime essayist for the New Yorker masterfully articulates the strange fact that New York is a myth even when you're in it. (Odd to think about the way geographical and psychic locations both differ and overlap; where is Hollywood, for example?) The dream status of Manhattan is so prepossessing that it seems like something to be achieved, never entirely apprehended. Gopnik's casually elegant prose -- he must be one of the most likable smart guys on the planet -- investigates Jewishness, old jokes, grocery shopping, apartment hunting and jazz ("the still-potent romantic formula of city lights, early death, and the piano" ). He considers the feral parakeets of Queens, the character of chefs and the deracination of Times Square. About that newly Disneyfied area, he is hilarious: "All of us, right and left, make the new Times Square a butt of jokes -- how sickening it still is to be forced to gaze at so much sleaze and human waste, to watch the sheer degradation of people forced to strut their wares in lust-inducing costumes before lip-licking onlookers, until at last 'The Lion King' is over and you can flee the theater." The sense of safety and security -- elusive notions with which the nation seems, at this moment, obsessed -- are bought at a real price, he asserts.

Even at home, the idea of safety is no simple matter. "The art of child rearing," he writes, poking at a central tenet of American parenting, "is to center the children and then knock them off center; to make them believe that they are safely anchored in the middle of a secure world and somehow also to let them know that the world they live in is not a fixed sphere with them at the center; that they stand instead alongside a river of history, of older souls, that rushes by them, where they are only a single, small incident." Perhaps that attitude -- among children and adults -- is what makes New York seem tenuously attached to the United States. It's hard to hear that "river of history" in exurban malls across the country, harder to be awake to the fact that one isn't the fixed center of things.

Gopnik calls himself a "comic writer," and certainly he is, but it would be a diminishment of his gifts to leave it at that. A fine comic writer does much more than simply provide amusement. Gopnik's brand of comedy is a tender but clear-eyed examination of folly, desire and human struggle. He also is an anatomist of the moment and its manners: "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. Comic writers should not have credos ... but if I had one, that would be the one I would have. These are stories about the manners, the children, and the objects of the professional classes ... in a time of generalized panic and particularized pleasures.... "

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