What makes a place home? As he researched his book Home Town, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder (Soul of a New Machine, 1981) wasn't sure he knew the answer. That's why he writes.
"I can look into parts of the world I don't understand and don't know about, and that's pretty wonderful," said Kidder in a recent telephone interview. The only thing he felt sure of was he wanted to study Northampton, Massachusetts. "It still preserves the old pattern of the New England township," he writes, "a place with a full set of parts."
Like Plato's ideal city-state, Northampton is home to 30,000 people. It also stands out in bold relief from Haiti, where Kidder had gone as a reporter during the military takeover after Aristede. In Haiti, absolutely nothing worked. After his return, Kidder thought he might research all the components that make a place function, and more, make a place feel like home. "I'm sickened by strip malls, gated communities, decaying, dying old downtowns. We've lost that sense of ancestry in a place, longevity," he said. "I grew up in Long Island, a place that vanished in front of my eyes. I grew up there in the '50s, in the great building boom. It was pretty distressing—you go away and come home and find a whole town gone, a cloverleaf in its place."
While he pondered how to approach his subject, someone approached him at the gym. "This guy on the machine next to me, baldheaded guy, completely shaved head, said, 'You don't remember me, do you? I arrested you five years ago for speeding.' Then he said, 'Why don't you come and ride around in the cruiser with me? You'll see a Northampton you've never seen.'"
This was Tommy O'Connor, a cop born and bred in Northampton. Two years of riding around with Tommy gave Kidder something different from the vantage points you usually see. "Northampton has layers and layers. I saw a whole side of it I didn't know, hadn't imagined had existed." It also gave him a way to tell his story. Though richly peppered with archival research about Northampton, the heart of Home Town is its people. "The world doesn't make much sense to me generally," said Kidder. "I don't feel like I'm good at that. I like particular people, particular places."
Northampton feels like home because the author has created a montage of the lives of its citizens much the way Sherwood Anderson did in his 1919 short story collection, Winesburg, Ohio. "I read it a couple of times again—not that I had the same kind of story or constructed it in the same way, but I love the thing." Unlike Anderson's characters, those in Kidder's book are real, even though some, like eccentric Alan Scheinman, resplendent with obsessive-compulsive disorder, make it hard to remember Home Town is nonfiction.
"Curing yourself of obsessive compulsive disorder by going to a strip club is pretty strange," admitted the author, but Alan is as much a part of the town as Laura, a single mother from California who's come to study at Smith College and Frankie, the town's well-meaning vagrant. They all call Northampton home, but the book's center and its moral compass is Tommy O'Connor.
Fate—or Kidder's lead foot on the gas pedal—may have brought Tommy to him, but Tommy continued to compel Kidder. Having lived all his life in Northampton, he knew every person in town. It gave him a sense of connection and responsibility palpable even beneath his brash exterior.
"There's a moment in the book where he is reinventing Kant," Kidder recalled. "It's a little more elegant than Kant, actually. He says, what's right is right, what's wrong is wrong, and the state of your internal being doesn't matter. You do the right thing even if it makes you feel bad. The purpose of life is not to be happy but to be worthy of happiness."
Home Town chronicles what happens when reality corrodes Tommy's ideals. "Memory is so much a part of imagination, so plastic, so wonderfully plastic," said Kidder. "If you had an essentially happy childhood, that tends to dwell with you. It was certainly true in the case of Tommy O'Connor. No childhood was as happy as the one he had assembled for himself, no town so wonderful, and that's sort of something he had to get over. If you live in the same small place long enough, something you don't like is bound to happen."
That something didn't happen to Tommy, it happened to his best friend, whom Kidder refers to in the book as Rick Janacek. Rick was Tommy's childhood friend, his friend on the force and in many ways, Tommy's mirror. Then Rick announced to Tommy he was an alcoholic, he was getting divorced and his wife had issued a restraining order against him, accusing Rick of sexually abusing one of their daughters. This sort of thing shouldn't happen in Northampton, not the Northampton Tommy knew and policed. Charmed by the place himself, Kidder explained, "It's one of the few civilized parts of America. I like the way it looks, the sense that history surrounds you in a constructed landscape. It's picturesque, authentic. It's where people grew up or wish they had grown up." The potential for evil in Tommy's home town felt to him like a betrayal, a rending in the fabric of his life. For the first time, he questioned the place he loved and his role in it.
Tommy's story—and Rick's, Alan's, Laura's, and Frankie's—are engaging as stories and amazing in their candor. What made these people tell Kidder the sad truths of their lives? The author cited a remark attributed to both Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers: "'Nothing human is alien to me'—that's the state of mind I'd like to aspire to. You don't get far with people by judging them, and one of the nice things of my profession is I don't have to. It makes things a lot more fun, more interesting. It's important to hang around with people for a while, let people know what they're getting into. I try to make people have their eyes as open as they can be."
And like Tommy O'Connor, he feels both affection for and responsibility to the people he connects to with his writing. "I think," said Kidder, "there's a certain level of decency and honor."
In Home Town, as with other works like Old Friends and Among Schoolchildren, Kidder learned a big lesson from a small place. "One of the things I wanted you to feel in this book, when you were with each of the characters, you'd really be with the person, engaged, wondering what would happen and why. Then I wanted to move you away and have you feel, oh, yes, this is important, there's something larger, a bigger vessel. Home is," said Kidder, "the strange combination of history and present life and culture that make a place good for human life."
The home town he portrays in his book embraces more than pretty streets and solid infrastructure. It evokes sanctuary, nostalgia, longing, belonging, and loss.
Ellen Kanner has interviewed many authors for BookPage.