Tracy 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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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:
TOM O'CONNOR SEPTEMBER 29, 1972
I WANT TO BE A POLICEMAN
I AM IN SIXTH GRADE
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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