June 1999

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Keeping the Home Fires Burning

by Charlie Onion

racy Kidder is a patient man.

In House (1990), he followed an architect, a young couple and a small construction company around for a year, taking notes and quietly observing them while they planned and built a house. Then, like a documentary film maker, he gathered up all the notes and edited them down into an engaging book.


Home Town
Tracy Kidder
Random House
350 pages

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For his latest book, Home Town, he did much the same thing: he followed a variety of people around the small Massachusetts town of Northampton, taking notes and quietly observing. And as before, he gathered up the notes and wove them together into an engaging book.

Only this time, the results are quite different.

Where House was rather modest in scope, Home Town, in its grandest moments, attempts to convey what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead might call the concrescence of a town--the simultaneous, shared being of something quite large. Where we might each of us see ourselves as being separate from our surroundings (and other people), Whitehead's concrescence points to the subtle links that bind us into one shared moment: a town, perhaps, or the universe--at this moment now.

Of course, concrescence implies unity, cohesion, stability. But towns, over time, change. Neighbors move away, new families replace them. Gradually, the town that you knew becomes mere local history, which, in time, will itself be lost and forgotten. So residents are in a dilemma, trying to preserve the concrescence they call home.

This struggle against change is a central theme in Home Town: should a town change at all? How much? And how can someone stop it from changing for the worse?

Thus, where House was about the practical difficulties involved in getting a home erected, Home Town is about the much more profound difficulties involved in keeping one going.

Northampton is a perfect subject town. At 30,000, its population is roughly the size Plato recommended for his perfect city-state in The Republic--and also the size Ebenezer Howard envisioned for his Garden City projects a hundred years ago. (Howard thought having such a small population would keep crime low.) With local Smith College students representing 16% of its population and "an unusually large number of lawyers, doctors, clergy [and] judges," it is a stable, well-educated and rather liberal town.

And it has a long, noble history. Jonathan Edwards, the eighteenth century theologian, gave his famous "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" sermon in Northampton. One hundred and fifty years later, Henry James, a one-time resident of Northampton, set some of his first novel there. James himself apparently had a few problems with Northampton, writing in a letter that "Sometimes it waxes so stupid that I swear a mighty oath that I will pack off the next day." He was kinder in the novel, which includes this passage:


As he looked up and down the long vista, and saw the clear white houses glancing here and there in the broken moonshine, he could almost have believed that the happiest lot for any man was to make the most of life in some such tranquil spot as that. Here were kindness, comfort, safety, the warning voice of duty, the perfect hush of temptation. And as Rowland looked across the arch of silvered shadow and out into the lucid air of the American night, which seemed so doubly vast, somehow, and strange and nocturnal, he felt like declaring that here was beauty too--beauty sufficient for an artist not to starve upon it.


James wasn't being unduly kind here. The scenery around Northampton attracted no less an artist than Thomas Cole himself. (His View from Mount Holyhocke, Northampton, Massachusetts, After a Thunderstorm now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) Likewise, the poet Sylvia Plath gazed down at Northampton from nearby Mount Holyhocke and wrote, "All's peace and discipline down there." Kidder himself observes that


From the summit, the cornfields are a dream of perfect order, and the town seems entirely coherent, self-contained, a place where a person might live a whole life and consider it complete, a tiny civilization all its own. Forget the messiness of years and days--every work of human artifice has a proper viewing distance. The town below fits into the palm of your hand. Shake it and it snows.


Of course, such lofty heights are deceptive in their abstractions. And therein lies Kidder's subject:


A great deal lay hidden and half-hidden in this small, peaceful town. Well before you understood all of it you would feel you understood too much. Northampton wasn't New York or Calcutta. It wasn't even as large as the little cities to its south. As places go, it seemed so orderly. But what an appalling abundance it contained. If all of the town were transparent, if the roofs came off all the buildings and the houses and the cars, and you were forced to look down and see in one broad sweep everything that had happened here and was happening, inside the offices, the businesses, the college dormitories, the apartments, the hospitals, the police station, and also on the playing fields and the sidewalks, in the meadows and the parks and the parking lots and the graveyards and the boats out on the river, you'd be overcome before you turned away. And not just by malignancy and suffering, but by all the tenderness and joy, all the little acts of courage and kindness and simple competence and diligence operating all the time. To apprehend it all at once--who could stand it? No wonder so much remains invisible in towns.


Kidder's main character is a thirty-four-year-old Northampton cop named Tommy O'Connor. He is, in every sense, a Townie. He was born in Northampton and dislikes leaving it even for vacation. And, as a child, he was equally certain about his future profession. "At five years old," Kidder says, "he stood in the middle of Forbes Avenue dressed in a round postman's hat and pretended to direct the scanty traffic. In fourth grade he founded the O'Connor Detective Agency." In sixth grade, he used a crayon to write this on the wall inside his closet:




In junior high school, he joined the Police Explorer Scouts, and by the ninth grade, he was working at the police station as a volunteer. As Kidder writes,


In all his dreams, Tommy spent the rest of his life in Northampton. He made a plan. He would remain a cop and rise to sergeant--and no higher for a long time, because higher office meant mostly desks and paperwork. He would marry and have a bunch of kids who would reenact his own Northampton childhood--why not, when his had been so nearly perfect? And then after he retired, he would run for mayor.


Far from feeling trapped in a small town like, say, George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life, O'Connor relishes the thought of spending a life there.

And as a cop, he goes to great measures every day to insure that the town he grew up in remains unchanged. It is, of course, a Herculean--even impossible--task. (When he first started patrolling as a cop, he scanned his neighborhoods so obsessively that he had to visit an opthamologist for eye strain.) A booming downtown, for example, attracts rowdy teenagers who impede foot traffic and even frighten shoppers away. Crack cocaine eventually reaches Northampton, and it takes O'Connor (and the other local cops) a while to understand that the inordinate number of car antennas being broken around town are being used as crack pipes. But once he makes the connection, O'Connor tracks and arrests dealers so single-mindedly that he ends up pursuing a case that leads to the seizure of two and a half tons of marijuana. Shortly afterwards, he is given the Major John Regan Award for being one of New England's most effective drug officers.

And he's promoted to sergeant.


O'Connor is a wonderful subject for Kidder's book because he offers not only an example of 'home-love' and a deep desire for changelessness; he also offers us another perspective on the seemingly perfect Northampton town life:


In the crowds, he spotted the familiar faces of city officials, local entrepreneurs, lawyers and judges he knew from court, doctors and professors from his old neighborhood--people who rarely got in the kind of trouble that he dealt with, though some of their kids did. He would watch through his cruiser's windows as, unbeknownst to them, those respectable citizens walked down the sidewalks right beside drug dealers, local felons, a paroled murderer or two.


His job, at least partly, is to keep them naive about the dangers around them. And it's an interesting point: in some sense, O'Connor is protecting the notion of 'home' for Northampton's citizens.

At heart, Kidder suggests, we all need to feel that we belong in a space, feel that we fit in comfortably. In Whitehead's vocabulary, we long for warm concrescences; they make us feel good. Kidder describes a woman, for example, who has traveled from her oceanside California town to attend Smith College. She feels out of place until she sees an old woman raking her yard placidly in the New England countryside. "[S]he told herself she was going to remember this picture: a woman in a man's old brown fedora and rubber knee-length boots, wielding her rake adroitly, neither hurrying nor slacking." The transplanted Smithie then feels, quite suddenly, that she wants to become that woman. And with that thought, she finds she fits in--she can now visualize this idealized New England countryside as her home.

O'Connor's self-appointed task is to preserve these healthy illusions for his neighbors--all the while, of course, trying to preserve at least some of the illusion for himself. It is, to say the least, an intriguing scenario, and Kidder blends his deeper themes beautifully into O'Connor's story.


Kidder is a master of lyrical understatement--not mere minimalism, where the writer shoots simply for a low word count; rather, he's a master of that minor key of minimalism that works in E-flat and tucks its conclusion under itself, for fear of taking too loud a position. Where you might expect heady climaxes, he pointedly delivers quiet details.


It was getting dark. Tommy was driving through snowdrifts, chortling, when the dispatcher called. A teenage boy had been playing football with friends at the Meadowbrook apartment complex. The boy had fallen down and wasn't breathing. Tommy grimaced. He had no good memories of incidents like this. The cruiser's siren sounded muffled in the falling snow. The car seemed to float, drifting sideways around corners. He managed to take a sip of his coffee. "Something to throw up when he pukes in my mouth." It was a white-and-black scene in the twilight, a crowd looking on, silent, except for the mother. Tommy moved her away, while she screamed in Spanish over his shoulder. An off-duty cop, who'd happened to be driving by when the call came in, crouched over a small, quiet, supine figure. Tommy ran back through the drifts in looping strides and took a turn, kneeling down, rocking back and forth, compressing the boy's chest. Then the medical technicians took over with machines. "Tom, get the suction, the board, and the stretcher." And soon, with medical haste, the cops and the technicians were wading toward the ambulance, carrying the stretcher. They looked like pallbearers, but the boy was breathing again.


Such moments--and Kidder manages to give his readers quite a few of this caliber--are wonderful. Even awe-inspiring.


But Home Town is not a perfect work. And some of the problems are inherent in Kidder's methods. Rather than showing us Northampton merely through O'Connor's eyes, he follows a variety of people--among them, an obsessive-compulsive lawyer who made millions in the 1980s real estate boom and now lives as a hermit, the California woman attending Smith College, a childhood friend of O'Connor (and a fellow cop) accused of sexually abusing his own daughter.

It's a good strategy, in theory--if you want to describe the town from a variety of angles, give your readers as many points of view as possible. But too much time passes between checking in with some of his secondary subjects, and their stories are consequently spread too thin to sustain dramatic tension. And the sheer number of stories and characters gets to be overwhelming at times.

Indeed, so varied and extensive are Kidder's secondary storylines that it is sometimes difficult, frankly, to see where he is going. Sometimes, the structure is merely subtle and sophisticated, and attentive readers will find it pleasurable to uncover it. At other times, he's simply erred by offering us too much information. The struggle to describe a concrescence is noble, but the risk is obvious: overwhelm us with details, and the focus will become the details, rather than the big, unnoticed thing you want to draw our attention to.

In a perfect world, where writers produce perfect rather than damn good books, it would have been better for Kidder to focus on fewer characters. A book dedicated solely to Tommy O'Connor would have been captivating--and since he's so central to Kidder's deeper themes, we would have been exposed to virtually everything Kidder wants to convey.

And that's the one really troubling aspect of Home Town: Tommy O'Connor is one of the best characters to grace a book--fiction or nonfiction--in a long time, and he deserves a book of his own. He's funny, he's smart, he's articulate, he's tough, he's vulnerable, he's a father figure, he's a perennial son looking for paternal encouragement at the toughest moments. We can see the world through his eyes, feel it through his pains. And in Kidder's beautifully eloquent concluding pages, when O'Connor has to decide whether to stay in his beloved Northampton or leave it for a career in the FBI, we may even cry for him.

If it had been merely O'Connor's story, Home Town would have been more than a beautifully written book. It would have been a work that deeply, profoundly moved its readers from beginning to end. As it is, it's something of a broken text, a little weak in places, ponderous in others. But for much of it, it positively soars.


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