May 21, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Home Town

Current Status
In Season
Tracy Kidder
We gave it an A-

Tracy Kidder’s books have an alchemical aura, turning apparently leaden subjects into nonfiction gold — for instance, computer engineering (The Soul of a New Machine) and a middle-class couple building a home (House). They’re engaging even for readers who, like this reviewer, have about as much interest in computer development as in can-opener development and who live in apartments where they definitely didn’t get to consult the architect.

In his new book, Kidder works a different kind of alchemical enchantment: He takes something superficially glittering and reveals its dense, lumpy, endearingly eccentric ordinariness. Home Town is a crosscutting, anecdotal account about the place where Kidder lives, Northampton, Mass., a thriving, arty college town of 30,000 people about 100 miles west of Boston and as far as you can get from a typical small town. Kidder’s task is to make it tell us something about ourselves, and he succeeds.

Northampton, long a sleepy, decorous place dominated by a plain-living Yankee aristocracy and then by even plainer Irish and Polish immigrants, was by the early 1970s fading fast, its quaint red-brick downtown seedy and largely boarded up. But within a few years it was restored and gentrified by an influx of young professionals and ex-hippies fleeing urban decay and suburban inertia. They turned it into the civic equivalent of decaf cappuccino, a mellow upscale demographic confection with a raffish, live-and-let-live ambiance and a downtown crowded with sidewalk cafes, ethnic restaurants, bookshops, art galleries, and oddball entrepreneurs. ”Northampton is the kind of place where a professor, potter, unemployed musician, former mental patient, a woman with a handsome alimony, can all be found on Sunday mornings sitting near one another at sidewalk tables…,” Kidder writes. Of course, this diversity is somewhat deceptive. If you’ve been there, you get the impression that everyone believes in the same mix of soap-bubble liberalism and vague New Age vapors. It’s a bohemia without the bedbugs and dislocating arguments and art of real bohemias, a hub of the therapy industry with ”more people on boards that worried about homelessness than…beds for the homeless.”

If Kidder had decided to filter the town through the sensibility of a local aromatherapist, the book would have gone up in incense. Instead he shrewdly chose to focus on a cop named Tommy O’Connor, a bullet-headed man in his 30s who grew up in the town’s old Irish enclave. Tommy has seen all the drastic changes and doesn’t always like what he sees, but he’s both tough and tolerant, dutiful and humorously easygoing. Surveying the evening parade of kids with spiky Technicolor hair, crossdressers, magicians, earnest activists in Birkenstocks, he cheerfully says, ”In downtown Northampton, every day is Halloween, and every night is New Year’s Eve.”

Tommy keeps having to arrest the same people, since the town has a small but dedicated underclass of nutcases, drifters, dealers, users, and losers, several of whom we get to know. There’s also Rick, Tommy’s boyhood friend and fellow cop, who has a drinking problem and maybe a guilty secret (his looming trial on a sex-abuse charge provides the book’s suspense); Laura, a despondent welfare mom and student at Smith College, who finds something like redemption by reading Paradise Lost; and Alan, who made millions in the home-renovation boom, became a germ-obsessed hermit, and finds something like redemption by falling in love with a dancer at a nearby strip club.

Kidder, exposing the pungent human realities beneath the soft, creamy, utopia-flavored Ben & Jerry’s surface of Northampton, reveals how much the once-flinty town — and by extension, the country — has changed, and also how much it’s the same old story. He shows us people struggling not with the environment, but with themselves. And in Tommy he gives us an arresting character in every sense of the word, and some irony as well. The hometown boy makes good: He gets an invitation to join the FBI. So the guy who knows and loves the place best turns out to be the one who skips town. A-

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