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Jennifer LangstonTommy O'Connor is a cop in a town of freaks, feminists, activists, academics, drug dealers, fancy restaurants, wholesome fresh food markets, and colorful street preachers -- all living in what was once the classic American small town.
He grew up in Northampton, Mass., where the all-female Smith College was his playground. He enjoyed a blissful childhood, an Irish family steeped in storytelling and politics, and the firm belief that he would spend his entire life in the place he was born.
Over time, the dying Main Street he remembered was revitalized with art galleries, bookstores, ethnic cuisines, movie theaters. The town of 30,000 -- the same number of souls as in Plato's ideal city-state -- became a place where public officials, felons, and vegetarian anarchists share the same spaces.
Tracy Kidder, whose eye for uncovering drama in unlikely places won the Pulitzer Prize for The Soul of a New Machine , explores just what makes a small town work. He leads a reader though the everyday details of his characters' lives, showing the kindnesses, dramas, and bizarre encounters that bind people to places.
Focusing on a half-dozen characters -- from the overworked mayor to a drug informant who teaches O'Connor the ropes -- Kidder uncovers more than a picture-perfect New England college town. There are drug deals, although they rarely turn violent. There are welfare mothers at Smith, struggling to convince themselves that they aren't stupid and that the college didn't make a mistake.
Home Town includes the eccentrics and homeless people, some of whom were released when the local mental hospital closed down. The most fascinating character is Alan Scheinman, a wealthy developer and rehabilitator of downtown buildings who develops an obsessive-compulsive disorder about cleanliness. But he finds helpmates -- from the clerks at the motor vehicle registry who agree not to "contaminate" his papers by touching them to a stripper who helps bring him back into the normal world.
O'Connor polices the town with tough love. Some days he relishes the circus, and civic-minded residents make police work easier. Other days he catches flak on the street for shaking down a known black drug dealer, because O'Connor is white.
He sees the town's full range -- from lesbians making love in the park to kids on the bubble of going bad. But like other mainstream residents of the town, he values tradition and order in his own life. He remains devoted to his father, his wife, Jean, and the idea of dressing up as Santa Claus and giving out toys at Christmas.
Over the course of the book he faces forks in his own life. He must decide whether to inform on his best childhood friend, a fellow cop who is accused of sexually molesting his daughter. And at the age of 33, he finds himself wondering whether to apply to the FBI, which would advance his career but take him far from home.
Through these characters -- their worries, victories, and everyday meanderings -- Kidder weaves a richly textured tale. With a skillful eye and a keen understanding of place, he also reveals how many different kinds of people can find home in one place.
Jennifer Langston is a reporter for a daily newspaper in Idaho Falls, Idaho.