What makes a town home?

HOME TOWN By Tracy Kidder Random House 344 pp., $25.95

He began with computers. Then a house, a school teacher, and a nursing home.

Starting in 1981, with his Pulitzer Prize-winning account of people in the computer industry, "The Soul of a New Machine," Tracy Kidder has been focusing his special brand of reporting on things that affect our day-to-day lives.

Now, he has turned his attention to a town.

First settled in the 17th century, Northampton, Mass., has the ubiquitous white steeples and brick buildings of old New England townships. But there's more. It is home to Smith College, an elite women's college. It was also home to the fiery preacher Jonathan Edwards, as well as the setting of a 19th century utopian community.

Although Kidder devotes considerable attention to the town's history, his true subject is the lives of ordinary people in today's Northampton. Kidder wants to discover what makes a town a good place to live.

"If civilization implies more than TVs and dishwashers," he writes, "more than artistic achievement and wise rules, it implies just this, a place with a life that shelters individual lives, a place that allows people to become better than they might otherwise be...."

Approaching the universal via the specific, Kidder shows us this particular world as experienced by several citizens. The central figure is Tommy O'Connor, a local boy who grew up to fulfill his dream of being a policeman. Through Tommy's eyes, we see a lot of what goes on in the town, including some of the less savory activities. But even here, we meet some characters with redeeming social value, like Tommy's favorite informer, a small-time drug dealer trying to kick his bad habits.

Although Kidder focuses far more on "town" than "gown," he provides a memorable portrait of Laura, a single mother on welfare at Smith College. While many of her fellow students see the program as a gateway to better job opportunities, Laura grasps the true value of a liberal education. It is what enables her, one night, to read through all of "Paradise Lost."

There is a touch of paradise in Kidder's portrayal of this small town near the Berkshires. Not that it is a place free from problems, but rather, that it is a place where people seek humane and effective ways of dealing with problems.

By focusing much of our attention on Officer O'Connor, Kidder shows us how a delicate balance between tolerance and vigilance can be achieved.

Ultimately, Kidder gives a carefully built bird's eye view of how a town becomes, well, a home. "If all of the town were transparent," Kidder muses, "if the roofs came off all the buildings ... and you were forced to look down and see ... everything that ... was happening, inside the offices,... the apartments, the hospitals, the police station ..., you'd be overcome.... And not just by malignancy and suffering, but by ... all the little acts of courage and kindness and simple competence and diligence operating all the time."

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