"Home Town"

It's a nice town. A very nice town. Zzzzzzzz ...


Kristin Eliasberg
May 6, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Tracy Kidder's "Home Town," a detailed, well-researched chronicle of one year in Northampton, Mass., demonstrates that a story's being true does not necessarily make it interesting. The New England town that is Kidder's subject is fairly humdrum, enlivened though it is by the presence of Smith College and by a strong tradition of civic responsibility. But since Kidder's central character, Tommy O'Connor, is a police sergeant with narcotics training, and since O'Connor's closest friend, who is also on the force, is arrested and tried in the course of the book for sexually abusing his own daughter, there is plenty of human drama. Many of the stories are interesting, and Kidder conveys a strong sense of character in each of his portraits. In the end, though, the whole doesn't add up to enough: You leave the book knowing a lot more than you did before about life in Northampton but not having learned much about life.

Kidder speaks of "the genius of the place" -- the town itself functions as one of the characters -- and he includes brief, compassionate portraits of major citizens: the mayor, the morning DJ, a senior judge. One of his strongest is of Alan Scheinman, a middle-aged man with obsessive-compulsive disorder. When Kidder first introduces him, he is walking around with his limbs swathed in plastic bags; during the course of the year, he bravely conquers his disease, taking Prozac and becoming (somewhat) normal. But Kidder isn't entirely convincing when he tries to make the case that the kindliness and neighborliness of the Northamptonites make the town a haven for Scheinman. (Sometimes he seems to be describing a Yankee Mayberry RFD.)

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It doesn't help that we aren't able to follow Scheinman's story chronologically. Kidder intersperses segments on the various characters somewhat randomly through the book, fleshing out the narrative with flashbacks, a few potted Northampton history lessons and occasional misty-eyed descriptions of the town and its denizens. We don't get to focus closely enough on any single patch of the broad tapestry to be rewarded with an in-depth story; nor is there enough sweep to provide a breathtaking panorama. The style presents additional problems. When Tommy O'Connor passes his former best friend and neither man acknowledges the other, presumably it's O'Connor who characterizes their encounter as "two ships in the night." But when the judge is described as "looking dapper" and walking "with a jaunty step" within the same sentence, the clichis just seem like authorial laziness.

Kidder's writing is informed by a general notion of goodness rising above adverse circumstances, but because he bounces from story to story without focusing on any particular issue, the narrative doesn't flow. (The sexual-abuse case picks things up early on, but then not much happens with it until well toward the end.) The character of Kidder himself doesn't provide a unifying factor, either. He is virtually absent from the book, occasionally to odd effect: Tommy O'Connor often seems to be talking to himself as he drives his cruiser.

Ultimately, the book resembles the town. It's nice, but it's not very exciting.


Kristin Eliasberg

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