The Book Club

Grover’s Corners and Winesburg, Ohio

I’m glad you mentioned Thornton Wilder. I found myself reading through Home Town and trying to decide just where to place it in the genre of American small-town literature.

A crucial piece of that genre, of course, is Wilder’s Our Town, and the quiet decency of the people of Grover’s Corners. I guess I should admit to you (as you probably suspected) that I’m a fan of Our Town. I’ve always thought its critics were too quick to pounce on it without paying sufficient attention to the subtlety of Wilder’s creation.

But that’s one kind of small-town portrait. Then there’s Main Street and Winesburg, Ohio–the small town as a constricting, intolerant wasteland, choking off the desires of its most intelligent citizens for culture and new ideas. Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson stand at the opposite end of the spectrum from Wilder. Besides those, however, I think you need to throw in a third specimen: the Peyton Place portrayal of small-town America as a cesspool of corruption, violence, and sexual misconduct, papered over by a thin veneer of hypocrisy.

Here’s the really interesting part about Tracy Kidder: Somehow he manages to cast a vote for all of these candidates at the same time.

Like Grover’s Corners, Northampton is tolerant, decent, and sheltering, full of lovable eccentrics who have always lived there but also hospitable to eccentrics who happen to wander in off the road. Kidder sees it as a miniature lab for the study of human variety, much as Wilder seemed to see his town.

But then by the end there’s a little of Sherwood Anderson in there, too. Tommy O’Connor ultimately gets claustrophobia, just like George Willard does in Winesburg. “Nothing in the landscape that he saw around him was as large as it had been,” Kidder finally writes of his hero. “He was standing on a sidewalk in a shrunken town.” A few pages later, he has packed up the car and hit the road.

All of this would be puzzling enough. But stacked on top of it is the small-time sin and downright weirdness that Kidder seems to encounter in Northampton just about every place he goes. O’Connor cruises through town each night keeping track of drug dealers and wife-beaters, fascinated by them and apparently comfortable with their presence. The supporting cast that populates the book is headed by an alcoholic cop who probably raped his daughter and a obsessive-compulsive lawyer who goes to strip clubs in the afternoon and washes his hands for hours.

For most of the book, Kidder and his hero seem to be telling us that the presence of sin and mental disorder, as well as familiarity and friendliness, makes Northampton a real place–not a syrupy confection like the one Wilder produced in Our Town. But when O’Connor flees, that notion seems to evaporate. Pursuing a career in law enforcement among the dregs of small-town New England society didn’t turn out to be so enjoyable after all.

I had fun reading this book. I found much of it insightful and evocative, and as I wrote to you yesterday, I’m intrigued by Kidder’s willingness to build contradiction into his portrait. Northampton isn’t Winesburg, and it isn’t Grover’s Corners. It’s a little of both. I can live with that.

On the other hand, I take your point that there’s something unsatisfying about the book’s tenuous position halfway between fiction and nonfiction. It’s structured like a novel, it reads like a novel, and yet by offering it as a tale of real events, Kidder can duck the questions we would be asking him if we knew he had made it up. Why does Tommy O’Connor really leave town? “Don’t ask me,” Kidder can say. “I’m only a reporter.” That makes me feel like he’s toying with us a little bit.

So yes, I agree with you, I’d rather have it one way or the other. Either make it a work of fiction, based on real people but subject to conventional literary assessment–or make it pure nonfiction, with all the real names included. That would be the honest thing to do.

Let’s talk about Ray Suarez tomorrow. What does the central city need most–a revival from within, or dispersal of its unfortunate inhabitants to green suburban fields?