Saturday, April 21, 2012

House by Tracy Kidder

I've finally read Tracy Kidder's 1985 account of a house that an architect designed and four carpenters built for an affluent, successful couple in Amherst, MA. Kidder had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982 for The Soul of a New Machine, the story of designing and building a new computer, and he has now published at least seven other books, including Among Schoolchildren, Hometown, and Old Friends. These are nonfiction, but Kidder writes like a novelist—and with a better eye and language than many. An example taken at random:

"All around them, the hills and field take on a deepening green. The bulldozed ground dries out and at the center, the gray-walled rectangle and the blond wood that rises from it, in arrays of intersecting lines and planes, look more than ever like an assertion about order. The carpenters, in jeans and T-shirts now, roam the perimeter in ones and twos, bringing lumber and tools and coffee to the shrine. Richard declares he no longer feels the stiffness that his joints acquired in the first week of framing. 'We're gainin' on it!'"

House offered me at least three distinct pleasures. First the joy of reading a writer in perfect control of his materials; a writer who with a phrase is able to convey a situation, a relationship, a person. Second, my admiration of Kidder's job as a reporter; he seemed to be the proverbial fly on the wall watching and reporting—and he has not changed a name in the book. Third, as a volunteer carpenter who has built houses, I enjoyed retracing the steps in a house's construction, from foundation to baseboards.

But, of course, the book is not really about—or not only about—designing and building a house. It's largely about relationships. The relationships between the couple paying for the house, Jonathan and Judith Souweine, and their friend, Bill Rawn, the architect who designed it. Between the architect and the lead carpenter, Jim Locke. Between and among Jim and his three partners. Between the Jonathan and Judith over design decisions, and between the couple and Judith's parents from whom they bought the land and are building next door.

The relationships involve class. Jim and his partners are blue-collar craftsmen; Jonathan is a lawyer, Judith has a master's and a doctorate in education. The relationships involve money, often with considerable tension and bad feelings. Bill, the architect, may see things one way; Jim see them another; and the Souweine's a third. This was Bill's first independent commission, his first house, and because he was building his practice in Boston while the house was under construction in Amherst, there were inevitable misunderstandings.

Anyone who is thinking of having a house built should read the book, if only to be prepared for the challenges she'll have to face. And anyone who is looking to enjoy a wonderful piece of reporting should read House just to enjoy Kidder's insights, information, and prose.

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