The Book Club

Those Little-Town Blues

I don’t know what to make of Tracy Kidder. He spends 300 pages telling the story of Tommy O’Connor, a small-town cop whose community is his life. This guy has scarcely left western Massachusetts in 35 years of life. He knows every inch of Northampton, and seemingly every one of its 30,000 residents. And he appreciates everything–not just the lovable characters and elm-shaded streets but the underside as well, the welfare mothers and teen-age drug users who make up O’Connor’s primary police constituency. As he sees it, all the parts serve to make up a diverse, tolerant, endlessly fascinating little corner of the world.

It is where he belongs. And then, a few pages from the end of the book, he applies to be an FBI agent, passes the test, and leaves. He wants to see the world. He wants to live in a place where he doesn’t know everybody’s secrets and doesn’t have to feel he is on display all the time.

The community we have spent so many pages admiring is suddenly shown to be deeply flawed–in the eyes of its favorite son. But Kidder isn’t finished tossing us around. He closes on a note of rapturous appreciation for the place Tommy O’Connor chose to escape. “If civilization implies more than TVs and dishwashers,” Kidder writes on the last page, “… it implies just this, a place with a life that shelters individual lives, a place that allows people to become better than they otherwise might be–better, in a sense than they are.”

Did that peroration leave you as confused as it did me? Probably so. But I decided that Home Town’s annoying ambivalence was also its real strength–ultimately it reminds us that community is a two-edged sword. The people who insist on extreme positions, who see nothing between the polar opposites of Peyton Place and Ozzie and Harriet, miss the point entirely. The leafy streets and familiar faces of Northampton are a genuine treasure. They just come at a price, that’s all. At different times in our lives, most of us will have different notions of whether it is worth paying.

I don’t know if I’d like living in Northampton. I’m pretty sure I would if it didn’t snow so much. But what I feel certain of is that we are better off having a country where there are plenty of Northamptons, places where the millions of people who crave custom and stability and familiarity have the option of building their lives around those things. I think in the last 30 years or so we’ve made that option more difficult to exercise than it needed to be.

Ray Suarez understands this really well, and writes movingly about old-fashioned neighborhood life and the relationships and tensions that exist in places like Bensonhurst in Brooklyn or Logan Square in Chicago. But his moral universe is a lot less complicated than Kidder’s: Cities are good, in his estimation, and suburbs are not so good. Not that he’s insensitive to the troubles that drove ethnic families in Cleveland or St. Louis to move out to the suburbs–most of the time, he shows real compassion for these people. But he still seems to regard their very departure as a tragedy, and I’m not sure that’s the right place to begin. I’d rather start by accepting suburban life as a legitimate choice tens of millions of people have made, and then ask what we can do to restore some of the old-fashioned community and sociability that got lost somewhere on the commute.