Getting way inside a real, living town

May 02, 1999|By Jan Winburn | By Jan Winburn,Sun Staff

"Home Town," by Tracy Kidder. Random House. 325 pages. $25.95.

In the language of the craft, Tracy Kidder practices "intimate journalism." His subjects are not news events like the school shooting in Littleton, Colo., or even the fascinating human stories that such an event reveals: the outcasts who plotted the rampage, the children who acted heroically. Those are stories of extremes -- precisely the kind Kidder avoids. His extraordinary talents are focused on the ordinary, on the momentous events of everyday life.

Whether he is taking readers into a fifth-grade classroom ("Among Schoolchildren"), a computer engineer's world (the 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning "Soul of a New Machine") or onto the building site of a couple's dream home ("House"), Kidder's nonfiction narratives are absorbing for the same reason good fiction is absorbing: He examines behavior, motives and feelings. The reader feels what it is like to be someone else.

In his new book, "Home Town," Kidder puts the reader inside the skin of Tommy O'Connor, a big, brusque cop in the old Yankee town of Northampton, Mass. O'Connor has seen the seamy side of his hometown in a decade of police work. It is a job he dreamed of since he was a boy, and it is a job that has cost him his innocence.

It is largely through Tommy that the reader comes to know this town of 30,000 that some inhabitants see as divided into two opposing camps: "a trendy, liberal-minded part made up of newcomers and nicknamed Noho, and a mostly native part called Hamp."

There's Frankie, an addict who does undercover drug buys for the cops and whom Tommy wants to rescue. There's the mayor, a hard-working and harried woman who gulps antacids. A lawyer who has made piles of money battles an obsessive-compulsive disorder so severe it cuts him off from the outside world. And a young undergraduate on scholarship at prestigious Smith College has to apply for food stamps to support herself and her young son.

But most fascinating is the dilemma presented by Tommy's childhood friend, Rick, a cop whose wife accuses him of molesting his young daughter. Kidder brings the reader to Rick's story through the eyes and mind of Tommy, who is devastated by the charges.

"Many nights, he came home, got into bed and read until the page began to blur. He turned off the light, and woke right up in the sudden dark. An old familiar feeling washed over him. He remembered times when he'd gotten in some trouble as a boy and had awakened the next morning imagining all was right with the world, and suddenly realized he was still in trouble -- 'Oh, sh--!' He stared at the ceiling. His thoughts came braided. 'I hope he's innocent. What if he is? If you had good times with a kid long, long ago in another world, what's the whole concept of a friend? Someone who's there for you when you're in trouble. What if he didn't do it? Then I'm a schmuck.' "

With layers upon layers of rich emotional texture, Kidder evokes the worlds of these people. He describes them in internal, self-reflective detail that makes them seem indisputably real. And they are.

That's both the advantage and the challenge for the writer of literary nonfiction. It must be true -- every detail, every nuance, every word spoken. Yet it must also read seamlessly, smoothly and without the apparent intrusion of the storyteller. Kidder is a master of the nonfiction narrative, one of those rare writers who can make a reader forget the story and instead experience the sensation of life happening before his or her eyes. In doing this so well, and in getting it right, Tracy Kidder transports us to an ordinary place where ordinary people live ordinary lives -- and every bit of it is fascinating.

Jan Winburn is The Sun's assistant managing editor for enterprise reporting. More than half of her 23 years as a journalist have been spent studying, teaching and practicing narrative technique.

Pub Date: 05/02/99

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