The Book Club

Whose Town?

Dear Alan,

I agree that the ending of Home Town is puzzling. The chief character flees the serenity of the very pastoral community Kidder celebrates, disappearing into the hubbub of the metropolis. Maybe it’s because Kidder’s hero just read the galleys of Suarez’s The Old Neighborhood and was convinced by its argument that big cities are where human beings belong.

Let’s put Suarez’s volume aside till tomorrow and home in on Home Town. In its early chapters, which include considerable stretches of elegant and insightful writing (“in a small society, as in a marriage, reputations long outlive the traits they memorialize,” Kidder notes of a character), Home Town feels as if it will lay out for us the ineffable quality of ordinary life. This promise fades by mid-volume. Though the book contains many inviting passages, Home Town devolves from latter-day Wilder into a mélange of stories about various people Kidder meets in Northampton, Massachusetts. Interesting, yes, but signifying–what? Most of the people seem to be in the town, and in the book, mainly by coincidence.

Kidder goes out of his way not to give us “typical” citizens. The street cop, the paternal (in this case maternal) mayor, and the stern local judge are figures one expects to find in a small-town society. The rest? A single mother battling nervous breakdown, a wealthy lawyer with compulsion disorders that include a fixation on strippers (musta been tough researching those chapters), a drug dealer with multiple personality syndrome, a child molester. Maybe Kidder’s view is that no one is “typical,” we all struggle against the norm. Again, interesting. But is that the point of the book? You never really know what the book’s reason for being is, other than to support the fabulous title, Home Town.

Reading along, I found myself uncomfortable with the fact that Kidder has changed some names. When a name is not revealed, it’s OK if there is a clear reason: the government official whose job would be forfeited, say. There’s no clear or stated reason why Kidder changes names in Home Town. One of the false-name characters is described in such detail–identified as the head of the Northampton police union in a particular year, for example–that it would seem to be easy to figure out who he really is, assuming this detail isn’t fudged, in which case the book is not “nonfiction.” Another character, a petty thief, is described as having a court file as thick as a tree trunk. If so his travails are public record, so why don’t we get his real name? When writers change names, they acquire the ability to adulterate stories or snaz-up details–since a person who doesn’t exist will never complain about how he has been portrayed.

In recent years, nonfiction has been infected with the virus of doctored names, composite characters, fabricated dialogue, altered order of events, whatever makes for a good read and smoothes out the narrative so that Hollywood will buy the rights. Bob Woodward is most to blame for this, with his endless presentation as “fact” of reconstructed events, his endless placing of quotation marks around dialogue he has no way of being sure even happened. Seeing the relationship between semi-truth and profit that Woodward has established, the publishing industry now pressures writers to play loose with the real. Many recent bestselling “nonfiction” books–Midnight in Garden of Good and Evil, The Hot Zone, Barbarians at the Gate, A Civil Action–contain extensive sections where readers are given no clue as to what is embellished and what is known. In the case of the worst offender, Garden, things are simply made up and presented as factual.

Kidder is an extremely conscientious writer with an exemplary reputation, so in a way it’s especially unsettling to find in his work false names and their concomitant effect of depriving readers of knowing whether what’s being related is solid, squishy, or embroidered. Top authors like Kidder should not give in to the fad of rewriting the facts to make them more interesting. Did Kidder? Probably not, but what tugged at me after I finishing Home Town was that the reader was left with no way of knowing.