‘At the Strangers’ Gate: Arrivals in New York’

‘At the Strangers’ Gate: Arrivals in New York’ by Adam Gopnik, Knopf, 2017, 253 pages, $26.95

Adam Gopnik took up residence in the city of his dreams in the 1980s. It is those years that are chronicled in this captivating new volume.

Gopnik and his fiancée, Martha Parker, left the creature comforts of Montreal for New York City. He was an art historian with a penchant for writing for musical theater while finishing graduate school. They almost immediately found a shoebox basement studio apartment in the East 70s, a home they christened The Blue Room, after the classic Rodgers and Hart song they both loved.

Thus begins this enchanting new book by a major contributor to The New Yorker. And thus began what Gopnik calls “my own transit from someone who wrote in the manner of a graduate student . . . to someone who told stories — or at least tried to — and, perhaps crucially, could make his living by the attempt.”

As he remembers making that living, Gopnik brings to life countless adventures that move from callow and careless (searching the sidewalks and parks of the upper East Side for the pants to a navy blue suit just retrieved from the shop where it had been left for alterations) to reaching the top (finally receiving an office at The New Yorker).

He also recounts his evolution as a writer. He’s as adept at bringing to life his and Martha’s SoHo loft — where the walls dripped molasses, because the loft used to be part of a candy factory — as he is at writing a lengthy paean to a SoHo Saturday — “from art theory to food memories” — or bringing to life what he learned at Gentlemen’s Quarterly before it became a general-interest magazine.

Just listen to his words about:

Working: “In the eighties, fluidity of opportunity made up for absurdity of occupation. You did a silly job, but having jobs was not in itself silly—one led to a better one. Now twenty-somethings feel impaled upon their first jobs. We felt . . . impelled — impelled upward, however illusory that feeling may have been.”

Writing: “You’re not really making something so much as assembling something — once the assembly is completed, you hope it gives the illusion of originality.”

Growing older: “Tenderness towards one’s lost self is sentimental; tenderness towards one’s lost longings is just life.”

In addition, there is a magical portrait of photographer Richard Avedon, not so much as surrogate father, but rather as “mentor magician.” There’s an extended lunch with writer Joseph Mitchell, who reveals that the secret to good writing is “a wild exactitude.” Most of all, there’s a loving deference he pays time and again to his extraordinary Martha.

Part memoir, “At the Strangers’ Gate” is also part re-evaluation of both an ingenuous youth by a now-wiser writer, and of his New York City during the eclectic and eccentric 1980s.

Moreover, it is a primer for all writers who are willing to embrace Adam Gopnik’s caveat about being a writer: “Painters are their marks and their time, which they can’t explain; writers are their sentences and their circumstances, which they can’t escape.”

Steven Whitton is a retired professor of English.