When Adam Gopnik arrived in Manhattan in late 1980 he was an art history postgrad so poor that he and his wife-to-be were reduced to sharing a 9’ x 11’ basement with a bunch of cockroaches. But everything was going to be all right because Gopnik had his guitar with him and he ‘knew someone who’d once had dinner with the sister of a close friend of Art Garfunkel’s psychotherapist’. Having sent a tape of his songs over, he settled down to ‘write jokes for comedians. It seemed like a plan for life’.
In a way it was. Though Gopnik has yet to hear back from Garfunkel, his oratorio about Alan Turing played recently at the Barbican. And if he hasn’t actually gagged up any funny man’s act, he’s written with entrancing penetration about the likes of Steve Martin, W.C. Fields, Woody Allen and Groucho Marx in the pages of the New Yorker since 1986. Indeed, Gopnik has written with entrancing penetration on just about everything in the pages of the New Yorker. Michelangelo; Mill; Montaigne; Macron; meditation — these are just a few of the subjects he’s covered this past year alone.
He didn’t, of course, start out on the New Yorker. His first gig holding a pen was on GQ (or Gentlemen’s Quarterly as it still was then). They were looking for a fashion editor, and Gopnik, who couldn’t tell a pinstripe from a chalk stripe and was ‘still effectively dressed by my mother’, somehow got the gig.
Having got it, he proved good at it in the only way that nervous beginners can — by working hard. At times our jeans-and-sneakers-favouring hero would have to smuggle magazine spreads home for his wife (far more attuned to the fancies of fashion than he) to help him come up with headlines and captions. One of her suggestions, about the glow of a linen shirt, inspired in Gopnik a Caravaggio-esque reverie. ‘Chiaroscuro Chic!’ piped his editor at the headline. ‘That’s delicious!’
So is the joke another GQer makes when Gopnik is puzzling over a moisturising feature: ‘Skin is like sex. You can either make it tighter or wetter… and either one only lasts for minutes.’
Rather less palatable is the section in which Gopnik rhapsodises about the joys of making love with his doubtless lovely and loveable wife. I’m very happy that the Gopniks are happy. But there’s a reason that, as Gopnik puts it, ‘sweetness is the last taboo’. As Kingsley Amis (about whom Gopnik has also written sagely) once said, ‘sex is socially embarrassing’. You no more want to read about it than be told about it by a friend in the pub.
Anyway, the liveliest parts of At the Stranger’s Gate are those dealing with the art world Gopnik had come to New York for. He has written in a earlier book about his academic mentor, the great — now late — Moma curator, Kirk Varnedoe. This time we get to meet his journalistic mentor — the great, also now late — Robert Hughes.
It wasn’t an easy friendship. For one thing, Hughes was a hard-drinking Aussie who could ‘aphorise after two bottles’, whereas Gopnik is a nice Jewish boy who’s ‘blotto on two glasses’. For another, Hughes loathed pretty much all the painting that had been produced in New York since he’d arrived there in 1970. Gopnik, on the other hand, thought that ‘betting against new art is always a fool’s errand’, and had just given a polite welcome to the beastliest and blackest of Hughes’s bêtes noires, the wilfully nerdy neo-popster Jeff Koons.
Soon enough Koons is a pal too, and your pulse quickens in anticipation of the moment he and Hughes come face to face and the sparks fly. But they never do. Gopnik keeps them well apart. Good for him, though not for us. How one would love to know what the wild colonial boy made of Koons’s Children of the Damned locutions: ‘All of my interactions with you have been pleasurable and inspired by integrity.’
Mind you, I’m baffled as to how Gopnik himself could put up with such guff. He’s one of the silkiest stylists around. Like his other friend and hero, the ‘antipodean homo universalis’ Clive James, he’s a dab hand at the near palindromic epigram. In fact, he’s a bit too dab. A biting apophthegm is a fine thing in a New Yorker essay, but reading a book that pretty much consists of biting apophthegms is like eating a plum duff the size of a balloon. ‘Writers are sentenced to their sentences, which sometimes set them free,’ says Gopnik. Yes indeed. Only sometimes they don’t.