Adam Gopnik and Martha Parker, 1985.
Earlier this fall, I got an amusing call from the writer Adam Gopnik. He’d come to Los Angeles as part of the tour for his new book, At the Strangers’ Gate, and was making his way down the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. I was stunned: first of all, it was high noon on a hundred-degree day—the town was absolutely baking—and second of all, he was walking, a rare activity among Angelenos. Luckily, he happened across Greenblatt’s, an old-fashioned deli on Sunset, and sought solace in some chicken soup and a corned-beef sandwich. All of these activities seemed to me evidence that Gopnik was a quintessential, incurable Manhattanite, far away from his natural habitat and relying on his New Yorker instincts for survival.
Gopnik is a virtuosic writer; since joining the staff of The New Yorker in 1986, he has written nine books and covered a myriad of topics for the magazine, from the emigration of the European Roma to the complicated legacy of F. Scott Fitzgerald to gun control in America. For many readers, he is synonymous with the pleasures of Paris: he was the magazine’s correspondent there between 1995 and 2000 and wrote the best seller Paris to the Moon, about his young family’s triumphs and travails as modern American expats. (The French Republic even bestowed upon him the medal of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters.)
Yet New York City—where he lives with his filmmaker wife, Martha, and their two children—has been an endless source of fascination and material for him. When he first started at The New Yorker, he dispatched himself all over the city, covering table-hockey tournaments in Flatbush, slack-rope walkers who dwelled in boats on the Hudson River, and a community of rivalrous fresco painters. In Strangers’ Gate, a blend of memoir and social observation in which Gopnik specializes, he revisits his arrival in New York from Canada in the early 1980s. The book is a love letter to that vanished town, then an eccentric metropolis of all-powerful magazine editors, landlines, Kodak film, artists’ lofts in SoHo, and bookstores on every block.
At the Strangers’ Gate also seems, at first glance, a whimsical counterpoint to Gopnik’s recent writings about America’s fraught political landscape. Although he once told me that he had never wanted to be any sort of pundit, he was an early whistleblower in the pages of The New Yorker about the threat to democracy posited by Trump, and has been unrelenting in his criticism since. “I feel a sense of emergency every morning,” he says. “We have to bear witness, even if we can’t change minds.” (He is already working on his next book, a political essay defending liberalism). Yet, he maintains, the seeds of today’s landscape had already been planted by the era he documents in the book; the eighties were “the first domino in a line of dominos that have fallen,” he says, leading to the post-9/11, post–financial collapse, Internet-and-social-media-driven realm in which we dwell today.
Gopnik and I spoke about the New York of his salad days, the attributes that make the city uniquely (and peculiarly) alluring, and how New Yorkers seem innately equipped to handle these unstable times.
Why did you feel that this was the moment you wanted to revisit and document 1980s New York?
Two reasons, I think. There’s that beautiful opening line of a novel—what is it? The Go-Between. “The past is another country; they do things differently there.” And for the first time, the eighties seemed like another place—remote enough that you could write and talk about how differently things were done without it seeming too minute to matter. The idea that I could now explain the decade where I came of age to the youngsters who were now coming of age—that was one motive. Also, romantic comedies about young couples in cities are an evergreen form, and I realized that I was remote enough from my own experience to write one about myself, or at least with someone not completely unlike myself, and my wife, at the center. Read More