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 cafés, ethnic restaurants, bookshops, art galleries, and oddball entrepreneurs.
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.