The art of nonfiction The drama of house-building

House, by Tracy Kidder. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 341 pp. $17.95. Of all the material possessions we accumulate in a lifetime, none is more expensive, more important, or as active in the working of our memory as a house. Houses are castles or homes (or both), and they have generated homilies the way gardens generate weeds.

But before a house can become a home, it must, obviously, be built, and how a house is actually built -- from conception to design to foundation to frame to finished dwelling -- is the story of Tracy Kidder's exceedingly well-constructed new work of nonfiction, ``House.''

Kidder assembles a cast of characters in the building of a house in central Massachusetts, near Amherst. In exploring their characters what emerges is not a matter-of-fact picture of so many blueprints, hammers, and nails, but a richly complex drama of human interaction with enough emotional energy to satisfy any playwright.

The owners of the house are Jonathan and Judith Souweine; he is a country lawyer (out of Harvard Law School) and she is a neuropsychologist. They have three children and are engaged both by them and by community politics.

The house they are planning to build, as ``House'' opens, is designed by their friend, Bill Rawn, a Renaissance man if ever there was one, who has been, at various times in his life, a successful corporate lawyer, a printmaker represented by the Pace Gallery, but who has forsaken all that at age 40 for a career as an architect. It is his first house.

The group that will build the house is Apple Corps, a quartet of builders known throughout the area for the fine quality of their work. They are Alex Ghiselin, Richard Gougeon, Edward Krutsky, and Jim Locke.

Early on, Jim Locke and Jonathan Souweine argue about price. The bid from the builders came in at $146,660. Jonathan wants them to knock off the $660 -- he wants to bargain.

Locke says, ``My job's not bargaining. You accepted the bid!''

`` `Do you think they just build the Empire State Building? They didn't bargain over the price?' says Jonathan.

`` `It feels to me like if you don't make a little deal out of it, you won't feel good about it,' says Jim.

`` `I want to loosen you up, Jim,' says Jonathan.

`` `Loosen me up how?' says Jim, raising his voice. `By the purse strings.' ''

And on and on it goes.

``Not a week passes without Jim or one of his partners remarking on the affair of the $660. Usually, Jim speaks of that sum as money that was taken from them. Generally, he says so while they are performing some little task not specifically required by the con-tract.''

That, of course, is the Apple Corps problem, if you want to call it that, in a nutshell. They are uncompromising in their work, in relentless pursuit of quality, yet because of this they virtually eliminate whatever profit they might make.

There are times, reading ``House,'' when it almost seems like fiction, so forceful and human is the narrative. Yet Kidder also manages to blend in a surprising amount of information about how a house is built, though his book should never be construed as a ``how-to.''

One learns about architecture, about how lumber is produced, how a house is designed, how a builder goes about his trade -- about building a house in general.

The only thing I wanted to see, but didn't, in ``House'' was the finished product (which later won a design award from the Boston chapter of the American Institute of Architects).

But the specific is more interesting, of course, and the interaction among the Souweine's, Rawn, and the Apple Corps, as woven by Kidder, are what makes this finely crafted piece of work so exceptional.

Kidder was there with all the participants, came to know them well, and it is obvious that they trusted him.

The result is a book better than even ``The Soul of a New Machine,'' his Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the computer trade, and it puts Kidder right at the top of the class of contemporary writers of literary nonfiction.

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