cover image Home Town

Home Town

Tracy Kidder. Random House (NY), $25.95 (349pp) ISBN 978-0-679-45588-2

The small Massachusetts city of Northampton, tucked away in the Berkshires, makes a compelling case study of civilization's highest aspirations and its inevitable chaotic failures. Combining postcard prettiness and urban peril, Northampton, writes Kidder (Old Friends, etc.), ""still preserves the old pattern of the New England township, a place with a full set of parts."" That set includes apparent order (its population has changed little in 40 years), leafy neighborhoods, a thriving downtown and the elite Smith College. But through that stability run cracks: ragged housing projects, crumbling infrastructure and crime. Kidder finds Northampton capable of harboring ""appalling abundance"" in the private lives of its 30,000 citizens, and he taps the town's diversity selectively, profiling a single mother from California who studies at Smith, a crack-addled drug informant, a judge, a lawyer whose obsessive compulsive disorder occasions bizarre behavior and, at greatest length, a 33-year-old police sergeant who touches all their lives to varying degrees. As Kidder contrasts diverse newcomers' delight with the more seasoned, conflicted emotions of natives, his book turns into an examination of what holds those who stay, what draws those who come and what haunts those who leave. Kidder's vision combines the realistic detail of a documentary with the broad sweep and imagination of a 19th-century novel of the streets. His assessment of Northampton's unruly equilibrium is an apt description of this book: ""somehow it works,"" and very well. BOMC selection; first serial to the Atlantic Monthly. (May)