Random House: Bringing You the Best in Fiction, Nonfiction, and Children's Books
Authors
Books
Features
Newletters and Alerts

Buy now from Random House

  • Home Town
  • Written by Tracy Kidder
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9780307826473
  • Our Price: $11.99
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - Home Town

Home Town

Written by Tracy KidderAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Tracy Kidder

eBook

List Price: $11.99

eBook

On Sale: September 05, 2012
Pages: 464 | ISBN: 978-0-307-82647-3
Published by : Random House Random House Group
Home Town Cover

Bookmark,
Share & Shelve:

  • Add This - Home Town
  • Email this page - Home Town
  • Print this page - Home Town
ABOUT THE BOOK ABOUT THE BOOK
ABOUT THE AUTHOR ABOUT THE AUTHOR
PRAISE PRAISE
Categories for this book
This book has no tags.
You can add some at Library Thing.
Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

In this splendid book, one of America's masters of nonfiction takes us home--into Hometown, U.S.A., the town of Northampton, Massachusetts, and into the extraordinary, and the ordinary, lives that people live there. As Tracy Kidder reveals how, beneath its amiable surface, a small town is a place of startling complexity, he also explores what it takes to make a modern small city a success story. Weaving together compelling stories of individual lives, delving into a rich and varied past, moving among all the levels of Northampton's social hierarchy, Kidder reveals the sheer abundance of life contained within a town's narrow boundaries. Does the kind of small town that many Americans came from, and long for, still exist?  Kidder says yes, although not quite in the form we may imagine. A book about civilization in microcosm, Home Town makes us marvel afresh at the wonder of individuality, creativity, and civic order--how a disparate group of individuals can find common cause and a code of values that transforms a place into a home. And this book makes you feel you live there.

Excerpt

Townie

He grew up here. He was the youngest of Jane and Bill O'Connor's seven children. His oldest sister called him Todder when he was an infant. His high school friends shortened up his surname and rechristened him Oakie. To teachers and other adults he was usually Tommy. His wife would call him Tom. All his nicknames and the diminutive accompanied him to adulthood. If you do all your growing up in the same small place, you don't shed identities. You accumulate them.

One day when he was ten years old, Tommy O'Connor's Little League baseball coach made him the starting pitcher. A signal honor, but then Tommy couldn't get anyone out. He walked the first batter, and from their lawn chairs on the sidelines the parents called, "Make him be a hitter, Tommy." So he threw an easy one right over the plate, and the batter nailed it. His teammates in the field behind him did as they'd been taught: they talked it up, they chattered, squeaky voices calling, "Hum chuck, Tommy. No batter, no batter. Hum it in there, Tommy baby." He threw harder and walked the next two batters. He eased up and the next kid hit it over everything. Many games of Little League reach this kind of impasse. Five runs in, the bases loaded once again, and still nobody out, the fielders grumbling, the parents looking on in silence, all except for one, someone else's father, who cares more about a good ball game than his neighbor's son, and shouts, "Get him outa there, for Christ's sake!" Tommy stood on the mound, staring at his shoes.

The coach called time and went out to talk to him. If sports build character, they can also test it prematurely. What if the kid can't take it? What if he begins to cry? "You all right?" the coach asked.

Tommy lifted his eyes toward the sky. It was a fine summer afternoon at Arcanum Field. Not a cloud in sight. Tommy looked back over his shoulder, as if just making sure. Then he looked at the coach, and he smiled. "Think it might rain?" he asked.

The coach told the story to Tommy's father, Bill, the treasurer of Hampshire County and the region's preeminent master of ceremonies and after-dinner speaker. Bill put that story about Tommy in the vast repertoire he employed at the Elks, the Legion, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the John Boyle O'Reilly Club, the family's kitchen table. There it grew as smooth as the bits of glass that Tommy found on the beach during the family's summer camping trips to Cape Cod. Tommy's mother kept scrapbooks about him, even when he was an adult. He was her last child, the youngest of the six who survived. He had brown curly hair, and a little cockeyed grin that made girls and women smile back.

Tommy spent his childhood and adolescence on Forbes Avenue, just off Elm Street and a few blocks from Smith College, in a quiet neighborhood of both grand and ordinary homes. He was raised in a wood-framed house that a family of modest means could afford back then. The house was full to bursting with exuberant youth, and the neighborhood was so full of children that Tommy never felt a need to go beyond it, except for the sake of adventure. Early on summer mornings he would stand on the sidewalk in front of his family's house and hear a cry or lift it first himself--"E-awkee!"--and then the same call, from voices that hadn't changed yet, would sound up and down the streets, and soon barefoot children would appear from all directions, apparitions out of the gray dawn. Tommy's friend Rick emerged from just three doors up Forbes Avenue, and from their homes came Ethan and Lisa and Bobby and half a dozen more. They'd converge on the sidewalk and make plans, naming destinations--"Meet ya at the Hill," "Meet ya at White Rock," "Meet ya at the dirt mounds."

The fastest, easiest route to Hawley Junior High--named for a local Revolutionary War patriot--would have been by sidewalk, but Tommy and his friends rarely went that way. From September until June they traveled with their bookbags through the backyards of the Elm Street neighborhood, sliding through hedges, ducking under fences, wading through snow. They paused to gather chestnuts at Slawson's chestnut tree, for the after-school chestnut wars with the Washington Street kids. They crossed the Smith College campus, past stately buildings and views of Paradise Pond, though years would pass before Tommy noticed the postcard beauties of the place. It was just their playground then. They stopped outside the college art museum and climbed on the Rodin, a statue called The Walking Man. They detoured through the backstairs spots that made perfect hiding places during games of Kill. They hunted frogs in the pond beside the college greenhouse, until someone came out and chased them away--class consciousness began to bloom in Tommy at that pond, the day he saw a group of kids and a teacher from the private Smith day school catching frogs without interference. The campus was so rich in diversions--the Foucault pendulum inside the science building, which they set swinging wildly; the elderly college security guards, Creepy Kreps and Mooney, whom they could usually get to chase them--that by the time they'd passed under the Romanesque shadows of the town's public library, they were nearly always late for school.

Tommy's world widened bit by bit, to take in other neighborhoods and villages within the town such as Bay State, Leeds, and Florence, and every widening seemed dramatic to him, a journey into a vast territory, called Northampton. But the old neighborhood remained its center, and the friends from it his most enduring. The oldest friend of all was Rick Janacek. Tommy knew him before he knew Northampton. Rick was left to play at the O'Connor house when Tommy still slept in a crib. He was two years older, and became something like a leader for Tommy and many of his gang. "Let's go see what Rick's doing," he'd often say, on the mornings when Rick didn't join them on the sidewalk outside Tommy's house.

The O'Connor family had lost a child some years before, but the Janaceks' misfortunes were astonishing. Two children had died in infancy from blood disorders. One had cerebral palsy. In the most lurid of the family's catastrophes, the second son accidentally shot and killed the eldest. Not long afterward, that second son lost half his arm in the meat cutter at the family store. And a year after that, the family store burned down. The city took up a collection. Tommy's father had organized the fund-raiser.

All of this had happened before Rick and Tommy were born, but Tommy heard the stories, of course--"the old Irish," as his father called them, whispering that the one Janacek boy was maimed in fateful retribution for killing the other. Between Rick and Tommy, those troubles remained for years a thing known and not discussed. Rick didn't bring up the subject, and Tommy didn't want to meddle. Family was a sacred subject even then for him.

The hallway outside Rick's bedroom always seemed to be half filled with boxes. You got past by walking sideways. Rick's house always seemed dark, heavy-curtained, a bit eerie, but that didn't bother Tommy much, partly because of Rick's mother, who was forever feeding Tommy snacks and loading him up with boxes of damaged crackers to take home. Sometimes when he came looking for Rick and Rick wasn't there, she invited him to sit with her on her porch, and talked about relatives and people she knew who were doing good works, while feeding him another snack. She brightened the house considerably for him.

In the background of a group of old snapshots, a corner of Rick's bedroom appears--a crowded bureau, a clutter of coats and shirts hanging on a wall, and a desk completely covered with model paints, the pieces of a model in progress sitting on some newspaper. A heavy curtain blocks the window. Tommy, who is just eleven, stands in the foreground, pink-cheeked and chubby with a Dutch-boy haircut, striking various poses: joyfully giving Rick the finger, spraying deodorant at Rick, and, wearing a maniacal grin, holding the deodorant can as if to spray an armpit with it. Rick took the pictures from his sickbed. He was laid up for six months with a badly broken leg, and for six months Tommy visited him after school, almost every single day. They spent the countless hours of Rick's convalescence playing an early electronic game called Talking Football and building models. Rick's creations had a craftsman's perfection; Tommy's had gobs of glue hanging from their joints.

A friend two years older is a prized possession when accomplishment is still marked by years acquired and inches grown. Tommy pestered Rick for information about the adult world. Rick had Playboy magazines. He could answer some of Tommy's insistent queries and clear up his wild misconceptions about the facts of life. Tommy got drunk for the first time with Rick: he threw up on the couch in Rick's living room; Rick walked him home, put him to bed, and cleaned up the mess. One day when Tommy was fifteen, Rick said, "I got a joint." Rick held up a bedraggled-looking thing vaguely like a cigarette.

"What are you gonna do with it?"
"Want to try it? Nobody'll know."
So it was that for the first and last time in his life Tommy tried to taste an illegal drug. In his memory, it only made him cough. He still thought they'd tried to smoke oregano.
Tommy was a tender child, utterly dependent on his parents' affection for each other--bawling, he vividly recalled, when they got into mock arguments. He shared a room for years, and the same bed for several, with his older brother Jack, who was big, handsome, and wild. He adored Jack, and was, like many little brothers, oppressed by him. Tommy came to adulthood with a proclivity to worry, which seemed allied with the anger that he felt when someone tried to "get over" on him, and maybe that was part of the residue of growing up with Jack. But they were great friends now, and Tommy had decided to feel grateful to Jack when he returned to his memories of childhood. In that fine, assembled place, Jack had toughened him up--cured Tommy of his fear of the dark, for instance: when their parents went out, Jack used to lock Tommy in the basement and turn off the lights.

On one day out of many like it at the O'Connor house, Jack slapped Tommy and Tommy started crying and Rick said, "You're disgusting." Jack said, "Yeah. Mama's boy." Afterward Rick started saying to Tommy, "Why don't you stand up to him?" And one day he did. Tommy actually wrestled Jack to the ground, and looked up at Rick with startled eyes, as if to say, "Wow, it actually worked." Then Jack recovered and pummeled Tommy once again. But this was the beginning of Tommy's years of fighting back, a period that ended in a donnybrook conducted all over the O'Connor house. It concluded in the cellar in a draw, when he and Jack realized that one of them was going to kill the other.

By then Rick no longer guided Tommy. In many ways their positions had changed. By the time they got out of high school, Rick would say to mutual friends, "I taught O'Connor all about life. And he came back and told me what it was like."

Tommy was the kind of student about whom teachers say, "If only he'd apply himself." He was also the kind that teachers remember with special fondness and amusement out of the legions they've taught. One of his report cards read, "He's doing better. But he's still talking." Through every stage of school, he was surrounded by the warmth of popularity. Though he was hardly the best student or athlete, his high school classmates chose him to deliver their commencement address. "No jokes," the faculty adviser said, and Tommy obeyed. His classmates tittered anyway.

Rick grew taller and handsomer, but Tommy had the charm, and the first girlfriend. For a while Rick and another pal, Mark, tagged along when Tommy went out on dates. Then came their Smith College days. Some doctors and professors lived in their neighborhood but Tommy and Rick belonged to the quotidian part of Northampton, the part that ran the stores and local government and policed and plowed the streets and went to public school and attended high school football games on Friday nights and listened to the local AM radio station. To date a Smithie was, as Rick would put it, "every townie's dream." Tommy accomplished that first. His parents couldn't afford to send him away to a private college. Tommy lived at home and worked his way through two state schools in the region. The initials on his sweatshirt, "HCC," stood for Holyoke Community College. Now and then he told a Smithie they stood for "Harvard College Crew." He brought Rick along to parties at Hopkins dormitory, where they became something like mascots, interim boyfriends for the young women whose real ones weren't around. For Tommy too, these were mere flirtations with another life. He always felt a slight relief in June, like the feeling of returning home, when the Smithies left and he went back to older, native friends.

*   *   *   *

A lot of friends eventually moved away. Tommy stayed in town, and he became a local cop. In his neighborhood this wasn't an unusual thing for a boy to do when he grew up. Several had become cops--Tommy's brother Jack in Richmond, Virginia; Tommy's friend Mark on Martha's Vineyard; and also Rick, who joined the Northampton force a couple of years after Tommy. But Tommy's case was special. For as long as anyone could remember, he'd dreamed of becoming a policeman. At five years old he stood in the middle of Forbes Avenue dressed in a round postman's hat and pretended to direct the scanty traffic. In fourth grade he founded the O'Connor Detective Agency. He borrowed his father's old sewer commissioner's badge. His family's garage was the station house. Most of his friends were deputized. They made up flyers and distributed them around the neighborhood: "If you have any mysteries or anything missing call the O'Connor Detective Agency." Soon bikes expanded their territory, and took them into the old downtown.

Back then, in the early seventies, Northampton's Main Street looked like a lot of others in New England towns--the upper stories of many commercial buildings abandoned, some of their windows covered in plywood; moneylending and furniture stores occupying what once had been prime commercial space. Pleasant Street off Main was essentially a skid row, lined with buildings sheathed in tar paper and with what the local cops called fighting bars, where brawling men rolled around on sawdust-covered floors. The lovely old train station was crumbling, its roof half caved in. Downtown had its attractions, though: Charlie's, where Tommy and his pals bought penny candy, and old drugstores with creaking wooden floors and soda fountains that produced ice cream sodas, cherry Cokes. On their bikes he and his deputies followed suspicious-looking cars down Pleasant Street. In Tommy's memory, he got so good at mimicking a siren that now and then a driver actually pulled over, and he rode by looking innocent.

In junior high, he joined the Police Explorer Scouts and stayed with them through high school, and in due course he went from being a ward of the town to one of its wardens, dressed in blue polyester. In all his dreams, Tommy spent the rest of his life in Northampton. He made a plan. He would remain a cop and rise to sergeant--and no higher for a long time, because higher office meant mostly desks and paperwork. He would marry and have a bunch of kids who would reenact his own Northampton childhood--why not, when his had been so nearly perfect? And then after he retired, he would run for mayor.
By the end of high school he'd already met the woman he wanted to marry, Jean Kellogg, a Yankee girl from a small neighboring hill town. She wasn't so sure about him. He courted her assiduously, and eventually won her over. They made an old-fashioned couple, for the 1980s. He and Jean bought a house. Tommy was supposed to move into it, alone: Jean didn't want to live with him before their wedding. That was fine with him--he knew his parents wouldn't approve. But when the day arrived for him to pack up and leave his childhood home, he felt overcome by the prospect. He said he couldn't do it that day, he had to deal with an emergency at work. So Jean and his mother did the packing for him, and Jean fixed up the new place. Tommy was twenty-three, with his own bachelor pad, and he knew he should feel emancipated. But when he climbed into bed that night, all he could think about was home. This was the first time in his life he'd gone to bed without saying good night to his mother. He called her up.

"You did it to me," he said. "Your youngest is gone."
She didn't take the bait. "Yes. Yes," she said wearily. "Good night."
After a few years of marriage he and Jean began trying to conceive a child. None appeared, but they assumed it was just a matter of time. Meanwhile, Tommy's professional career proceeded much as planned. As the years went by, he rose through the ranks on the Northampton force, from patrol officer to detective, and finally, after ten years, to the sergeant in charge of patrol on the evening shift. He now commanded half a dozen young officers--a well-trained, grown-up version of the O'Connor Detective Agency.

Superficially, Tommy had changed. He had been a chubby little boy, and trim and handsome in his twenties. Now he was about six feet tall and burly, not fat but with a layer of flesh concealing muscle, and his curly hair was gone. If he was going to be bald, he'd decided, he'd be bald emphatically. Sergeant O'Connor shaved his head into a great expanse of skin and shined it up with aftershave before he went on duty. "Helmet Head," one of the other sergeants called him. Without hair above, Tommy's large nose looked larger. At times on duty, his face looked hard, which was the effect he aimed for. The skinhead look was meant to be part of his policeman's uniform, but it didn't entirely conceal the softness of his hazel eyes.

In crayon on the wall inside his bedroom closet on Forbes Avenue Tommy had written:
Tom O'Connor September 29, 1972
I want to be a policeman
I am in sixth grade.
Twenty-three years later, the inscription remained in the closet. Tommy went up to his old room and looked at it once in a while. It was like opening a scrapbook.

Sometimes Tommy O'Connor would be out on patrol at the summer evening hour when streetlights began competing with the sky, a thick forearm resting on the windowsill of the supervisor's cruiser, and he would find himself driving down Elm Street on the hill above downtown. As he approached the Smith College gate, Northampton's quintessential landscape filled his windshield--a green wedge of the Holyoke Range above the Victorian rooftops of Main Street. For a moment he'd imagine he was driving, not toward the center of Northampton, but into a western place at sunset, into a cowboy, frontier town, framed against real mountains.

The Mount Tom and Holyoke Ranges arise just beyond the southern border of the town. The Connecticut cuts a gap between them. They aren't really mountains, just a line of steep green hills. But in Tommy's windshield, they always looked more distant and much taller than they are. They looked grand and not quite real. They looked like Northampton's painted backdrop, and they gave him both a faraway and a comforting feeling. They made Northampton seem like places that he'd never seen, and yet defined the cozy scale of a place he knew by heart--miniature mountains for the miniature city that lay before him down Main Street.

A real Main Street, U.S.A., in general outline much the same as the dying downtown he'd known as a boy, but utterly transformed. Trees along the sidewalks decorated rows of refurbished nineteenth-century commercial buildings, three and four stories tall. Most were made of brick, with fancy Victorian cornices at their rooflines, all slightly different and all of a piece, like faces in a human crowd. Most of the public buildings stood apart, some behind tall trees and little lawns--the old stone courthouse, the old First Church, the Unitarian Universalist Society, city hall (the Castle, as some called it, because it looked just like one, with crenellated turrets on the corners of its roof). Downtown had a little park, Pulaski Park, wedged between Memorial Hall and the Academy of Music, America's first municipally owned theater, where Jenny Lind sang in the middle of the nineteenth century. Tommy couldn't drive down Main Street--no one could--without feeling the presence of history. Layers and layers of past were sedimented under the broad, curving avenue, the bottommost layer dating back to 1654, to a settlement made of wood on the first dry land above the ancient riverside cornfields of the Indians. Downtown's principal streets still followed the Puritan settlers' paths. Main Street still climbed their Meeting House Hill.

In the downtown now before him, the old crumbling train station was entirely restored. It had become a busy, fancy restaurant. So had a lot of other once moribund storefronts. Downtown encompassed only half a dozen city blocks. It was just a patch of city. But it now contained about forty restaurants serving a variety of national cuisines, eleven jewelry and twenty-two clothing shops, a dozen bookstores, seven crafts and art galleries, several nightclubs, two movie theaters. The plywood had come off all the upper-story windows of the commercial blocks. Lawyers and psychologists and hair salons now occupied the second floors. Tommy vividly remembered the era when, after graduation day at Smith, a stillness settled over Main Street and lingered for the summer. Now it was as if he'd blinked and looked again and the place was packed.

From one summer evening to another, the scene through the cruiser's windows looked much the same. The yellow streetlights and gaily colored lighted signs above storefronts illumined crowded sidewalks, down which flowed a mainstream of the middle-aged--mostly white, but with some black, brown, and Asian faces. They made up the human background of downtown, normal-looking and casually dressed, in slacks and jeans and khakis, in sandals on these summer nights. Men and women, women and women, strolled arm in arm past the street musicians. Now and then Tommy would see a cellist seated on a chair outside a coffee shop, or a troupe of Bolivian panpipers on the sidewalk by the Unitarian church. Most evenings the more ordinary sounds of a steel drum, a guitar, an accordion, a saxophone, came in the cruiser's open windows as he drove slowly by. Lines spilled out the doors of restaurants. People with that drifty academic look headed for the readings at the bookstores, and people of the avant-garde, in collarless shirts, the occasional beret, headed for the old bank building that had been recycled into an art gallery. Tommy would glance, and glance again, at the little knots of costumed youth loitering in Pulaski Park and by the Information Booth--skateboarders with their baseball caps turned backward, homeboys with baggy pants and gold chains, Goths in torn black clothes, adorned with spiky jewelry. Often, out in front of the Haymarket coffee shop, a group of Gothically attired youths sat in a circle on the sidewalk--some of Northampton's vegetarian anarchists, talking revolution and for now impeding only foot traffic.

The new downtown was lively and various. And, remarkably to Tommy, it was very peaceful. In the crowds, he spotted the familiar faces of city officials, local entrepreneurs, lawyers and judges he knew from court, doctors and professors from his old neighborhood--people who rarely got in the kind of trouble that he dealt with, though some of their children did. He would watch through his cruiser's windows as, unbeknownst to them, those respectable citizens walked down the sidewalks right beside drug dealers, local felons, a paroled murderer or two. Many of the people on the summer streets came from out of town, looking for a good time. From years of checking license plates, Tommy knew that on any given summer evening some visitors, sometimes more than a few, had long and violent criminal records. Yet there hadn't been a murder on the streets of Northampton for two years or, for several, anything more than minor disturbances on Main Street. Tommy thought his department deserved some of the credit. "I think some local officers have made it hard to be a criminal here," he said. But he felt that something more mysterious than good policing had to be at work. He gazed out the cruiser's windows at busy, peaceful Main Street, and he shook his head. "I don't know what it is about this place. We get some serious criminals here, but they always seem to do their bad deeds someplace else." He put on a homeboy's accent. "Up here they're chillin', chillin'. "

Tommy had a gift for mimicking accents. His own had the plain sound of what linguists call standard American English, a sound typical of Northampton and the region. One heard many nonnative accents around town these days--Brooklyn, Asian, East Indian, Latino. But once an accent is established in a place, it tends to stick, surviving immigrations. Probably because Northampton was settled by people from Connecticut, the local accent lacked the broad "a" of Boston. Tommy's was as plain as New England accents get.

Northampton was an old Yankee town twice altered fundamentally, first by nineteenth-century immigrations from Ireland, Canada, and Poland, and much more recently by an influx of generally well-heeled members of the well-educated class, the people largely responsible for restoring downtown, and for redefining it. Current local theory divided Northampton in two opposing camps: a trendy, liberal-minded part made up of newcomers and nicknamed Noho, and a mostly native part called Hamp. According to this theory, natives were supposed to take politically conservative stands on every issue and to resent the changes newcomers had wrought, especially the revision of downtown.

The distinction was too neat, but not entirely inaccurate. Most of the natives Tommy knew did their shopping on King Street, the town's shopping strip, a slice of chain department stores, auto dealerships, fast-food restaurants. They didn't shop downtown much because its stores were expensive and didn't sell many necessities--in all of downtown now, you couldn't buy a wrench or a tenpenny nail.

Tommy never shopped here anymore. "What would I buy?" he said, glancing at the boutiques. "Maybe a pair of sandals to write my Ph.D. thesis in." He wasn't fond of his hometown's new, prevailing politics, a kind of Democratic liberalism that described itself as progressive. In recent years it had displaced the old ethnic Democrats like Tommy's father, and, it seemed clear to Tommy, now wanted to exclude them altogether--conservative "old Democrats," in the parlance of the new ones now in control of city government. For years Tommy's father had presided at every Democratic mayor's inauguration, but not, rather pointedly, at the most recent of those. His father's jokes, it seemed, were thought to be unsuitable for current sensibilities.

One evening Tommy spotted a man dealing drugs right out in the open, in front of a Main Street coffee shop. A small scene ensued: On a crowded sidewalk, a bald-headed, burly cop running his hands up and down the pants legs of a young black man, who stood with his hands behind his head, protesting loudly, "Man, why you hasslin' me?" And, about ten feet away, a white woman with a silk scarf around her neck, watching the proceedings like an angry sentinel, hands on hips, glaring at the cop.

No doubt this woman was a well-intentioned citizen, summoned to moral outrage. It was reasonable enough to see what she saw--one of society's vulnerable members suffering from the prejudice of an agent of the law. She couldn't have known that the man Tommy was frisking often worked for him as a drug informant and also dealt drugs himself, or that he had a long criminal record and a history of psychosis. But to Tommy, the angry-looking woman was the prejudiced one. He imagined that he knew exactly what was going through her mind. "Obviously I'm hassling a black man, and the next thing I'm gonna do is call him the n-word," he'd thought as he'd glanced at her. Her silent reproach got to him. "It almost makes you feel like you're doing something wrong," he told a fellow cop afterward, back at the police station. Then he repaid the woman in kind. He put on a falsetto, a parody of the voice he imagined for her: " 'How can that bald-headed cop indiscriminately pick on that nice man just because he's black. I know a black man. I don't know his name, but I've actually sat down at a table and spoken to him.' " Angrily, Tommy had concluded, "Yeah, well, she wouldn't like it if T.C. was selling drugs to her kid."

Some natives, particularly those of Tommy's father's generation, actively avoided Main Street and its spectacles--the people in outlandish costumes and the women with butch haircuts holding hands and kissing. The people of Hamp were supposed to feel deeply aggrieved that their town had acquired a national reputation as an enclave of lesbians. Unquestionably, some natives did feel that way.

Tommy couldn't claim that some of his best friends were homosexuals, but three of his favorite colleagues on the force were openly gay. So were two of his favorite crime victims, a lesbian couple whose house had been robbed--he'd solved the crime and they were grateful, and so was he, for their gratitude. Imagining homosexual sex made him uneasy, and he couldn't keep from imagining it. But lesbians here didn't commit any crimes to speak of, and they'd shown themselves to be some of Northampton's most conscientious parents. "Lesbians are great!" he once exclaimed, catching sight of several female couples as he cruised down Main Street. "Gimme more! Why? They don't cause any trouble."

One thing that had certainly improved in Northampton was the police force. In the late 1970s, a local cop was indicted for attempted murder, and two others went to jail for burglarizing stores. Other malfeasance was dealt with quietly, and the force had essentially been rebuilt around the time Tommy joined. A young cop once said to Tommy that he couldn't imagine cops beating up prisoners in Northampton. "It used to happen," Tommy replied. "And that's one reason why it doesn't now." On this subject his tone was as righteous and reflexive as the one he imagined around him on Main Street. "There's an extreme brotherhood among police," he liked to say. "But I wouldn't stick up for a dirty cop. No way, shape, or form."

Tommy expressed most of his views as declarations, and his views of Main Street were declaratively mixed. He stopped the cruiser at pedestrian crosswalks before people had even left the curb. He did this partly to set a good example for the other drivers, but it wasn't really necessary. Once they hit downtown, most drivers seemed to become pacified, to rediscover manners, to remember driver's education. People could amble across Main Street with alarming carelessness. Some cast lofty glances at the cars. Especially at cop cars, Tommy thought. "Gets my ass out," he muttered, remembering a young woman who had walked, slowly and haughtily, in front of his cruiser the other night, even though he had his blue lights on.

He watched the pedestrians pass before his windshield. On any given summer night, they might include, mixed among the average-looking, a couple of young women with garlands in their hair, an earnest-looking young man with a slinky ferret on a leash, a woman in a pair of platform shoes so tall they nearly qualified as stilts. "How can she do anything serious in those shoes?" said Tommy. A man in a black cape, carrying a wand. "There goes Mr. Magico. Why doesn't he make himself disappear?" A former mental patient, a special ward of Tommy's and of some other cops, striding across the street, lifting his knees high, his fingers splayed rigidly apart. He wore a furry hat with a feather in it. "I believe he'd call that a plume," said Tommy. A group of boys and girls with burgundy hair, orange hair, India-ink hair, hair that stood up in spikes like a rooster's comb. He'd asked one of those kids for the secret: heavy applications of Ivory soap. He liked these motley promenades. They enlarged his town. He hadn't had to leave Northampton to sample the sights of urban America. The world had come to him. "In downtown Northampton, every day is Halloween," he said. "And every night is New Year's Eve."
On a summer evening, stopped at the central traffic light on the corner of Main and Pleasant Streets--no right turn on red allowed--Tommy peered at the bumper sticker on the car in front of him. question authority, it read. Sergeant O'Connor's jaw stiffened. He started talking softly to himself, as if talking to the driver, saying, "Free Tibet. Save the whales.

Hey, dude, go for it all. I hope you make a right turn now." But then, a moment later, a beautiful young woman appeared on the sidewalk. Her hair was dyed green, yellow, and white. She had a ring in each nostril and, hanging from her septum, a beaded chain that looked just like the pull chain on a lamp. Tommy's eyebrows rose. His eyes widened. His tongue came forward, almost between his teeth, almost ahead of his words. He looked ten years younger, or maybe ten years old, like the boy who used to go to special classes because he stuttered when he got excited. "This is the greatest community to live in!" he exclaimed. "All the lunacy, that's half the beauty of it. This is a great town to work in. What other town this size has this much going on at night?"
Tracy Kidder|Author Q&A

About Tracy Kidder

Tracy Kidder - Home Town

Photo © Gabriel Amadeus Cooney

Tracy Kidder graduated from Harvard and studied at the University of Iowa. He has won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Award, and many other literary prizes. The author of Mountains Beyond Mountains, My Detachment, Home Town, Old Friends, Among Schoolchildren, House, and The Soul of a New Machine, Kidder lives in Massachusetts and Maine.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Tracy Kidder


1. Where did the idea for Home Town come from? How did it evolve?
        
About five years ago I went to Haiti to do a story for The New Yorker. I saw a country where almost nothing worked. I came home, through the crowds of ragged, starving children at the airport in Port au Prince, believing that competent government and good engineering must represent a moral good, because their opposites clearly led to so much evil, so much human suffering. And I started to think in a new way about the largest town near the place where I live-- an old New England town called Northampton. It was a place that seemed to work very well indeed, and I wondered why.


2. What is your relationship to Northampton, Massachusetts?

I have lived near Northampton for almost 30 years. For me, and for many people who live in what is called The Pioneer Valley (which is the watershed of the Connecticut River within Massachusetts) Northampton has long served as a center. It's a meeting place, a shopping place, a dining-out place, a place to hear music or see a movie. It's a pretty town, maybe prettiest from the distance I used to see it from. Up close, it turned out to be, not different, but a lot more complex than I'd imagined. A surprising place, when looked at closely.


3. Much of the book is seen through Northampton police officer Tommy O'Connor's eye. How did you find him?

I wasn't sure that Northampton would make an interesting setting for a book, exactly because it seemed unlike Haiti, because it seemed to make entirely too much wholesome sense. Then one day, at the local gym, I started talking to a very friendly young man with a shaved head. After we'd chatted for a while, he remarked, "You don't remember me, do you? I stopped you for speeding five years ago."
        
Then I did remember. This was the shaved-head of a once curly-haired young cop who had given me a ticket and had afterward said with great sincerity, "Have a nice day." I remembered him mainly because he'd stopped my wife for speeding later that same day, and he hadn't given her a ticket. As I learned later, this cop--his name was Tommy O'Connor--usually didn't give women tickets, because he hated to see women cry. Paradoxically, if a woman did start crying, he'd reason, "Well, she's already upset. I might as well write her up." (Something for female speeders to remember--it isn't always best to cry. Better just to look sad and repentant.) Anyway, at some point Tommy the cop said to me in words like these, "Why don't you come out in the patrol car with me some night? I'll show you a Northampton you never thought existed."


4. What compelled you to write about O'Connor and what he saw every day?

He turned out to be an extraordinary cop, smart and diligent and funny, very good at his job, and deep down, almost too kind for his own good. Riding with Tommy O'Connor was fun, and it was interesting. I'd ride with him most nights and spend the days poking into the lives of other townsfolk, often ones he'd led me to. He delivered on his promise. Through him, I began to see a town I hadn't thought was there. The picture that I'd held in my mind of the place began, not to fall apart, but to fragment, the way a pointillist painting turns into a bunch of small dots if you move too close to it--except that the dots in this case were in themselves interesting, and sometimes appalling. After awhile, I could walk down the lovely Main Street past its fine old, refurbished buildings and its colorful open-air life, and conjure up a vision of a whole bunch of things happening elsewhere, nearby but largely out of sight.
        
And Tommy was a lot of fun to ride around with. He was certainly forceful, but he wasn't one of your dour, mean, thoroughly cynic cops. Sometimes when his job brought him to the Emergency Room, he'd get one of the nurses to take his blood pressure. Repeatedly, the measurements showed that it rose, not dangerously but markedly, when he was in uniform. Ten years as a local cop in his small native place, and he still felt excited when he went out patrolling in his town and heard the desk officer's voice come over the radio, calling for him.
        
I remember this innocent little incident: "Eighty-three," said the desk officer's voice. "We have a call for a dog locked inside a car."
        
The desk officer's voice sounded weary. Tommy's voice rose. "Why do people call the police because of a dog in a car?" he cried, as he headed toward the scene. "Why not? Who else they gonna call? This is a great job."
        
Tommy's story seemed like a classic American story to me. A boy grows up in a town and comes of age believing that he has spent his childhood in the best of all possible places, and he fulfills a dream he's had since infancy--to become a local cop and to work to keep the town just as orderly and safe as it had been when he was a boy. But not long after we meet him, he comes up against the truth--that if a person lives long enough in the same small place, sooner or later something he really doesn't like is bound to happen all too close to home.
        
In my book we spend about a year and a half with Tommy. It's a time in which, in effect, the landscape of the town changes for him, a time during which, in a sense, he grows up--always a sad event for the happy child. So if I were forced to summarize my book in a few words, I guess I'd say that it's about an old American town, seen in the reflection of lives lived in it, chiefly the life of a person who knows and loves the place so well that in the end he has to leave it.

Praise

Praise

"Tracy Kidder's gift as a writer is one that is also often associated with certain great center fielders: a grace that makes the difficult look effortless.... The eloquent interplay, not just between history and the present, but between the public and private moments of life, results in a book whose subtle originality is at the service of the deep humanity of its portraiture. I can't think of an American writer who gets that sense of human scale more right, more consistently, than Tracy Kidder."--Stuart Dybek, author of The Coast of Chicago

Praise for House
"This book is the story of the building of a house, and it is told with such clarity, intelligence, and grace it makes you wonder why no one has written a book like it before. In the way that a well-told story of a marriage or of a love affair or of a child's coming of age fills you with a sense that you are reading about a fundamental human experience for the first time, so it is with House."--Paul Goldberger, The New York Times Book Review

The Soul of a New Machine

"Kidder has endowed the tale with such pace, texture and poetic implication that he has elevated it to a high level of narrative art....Splendid."--The New York Times Book Review

Old Friends

"Sheer magic." --Walter Shapiro, Time

Among Schoolchildren
"Tracy Kidder can turn the most unlikely story into a riveting drama."  --Anne Tyler

  • Home Town by Tracy Kidder
  • September 05, 2012
  • Social Science
  • Random House
  • $11.99
  • 9780307826473

Your E-Mail Address
send me a copy

Recipient's E-Mail Address
(multiple addresses may be separated by commas)

A personal message: