IN CASE you had been wondering what happened to all those people you met in The Big Chill, the answer seems to be that they went off to the hills of Western Massachusetts two years ago and built themselves an expensive house. This at least is the conclusion that Tracy Kidder's new book unwittingly invites one to draw. With too few discernible traces of humor or irony, it introduces us to a small group of rather privileged people who, like those in the movie, went through a period of activism during the '60s and are now accommodating themselves, with fleeting twinges of guilt, to the good life on the fast track. Kidder appears to believe that there are universal conclusions to be drawn from their experiences -- "In House," the dust jacket intones, "he takes us straight to the heart of American life" -- but he certainly fails to demonstrate many.
This is because he has chosen the wrong cast for the right play. The construction of a house is indeed a matter of interest to most of us, and one that goes far beyond mere questions of wood and concrete, but this particular house and these particular people are something else altogether. Most new American single-family housing is built these days in developments of one sort or another, on speculation, according to standardized plans; this house was built on a four-acre plot in Amherst, to the owners' specifications, designed by an architect who later won a prestigious prize for it. The final cost of construction alone -- quite apart from that of the architect's fees and the land, which for some reason Kidder does not divulge -- was nearly $150,000, a figure that even in a time of inflated real-estate prices is beyond the imagination of all but the most fortunate among us.
It was built, moreover, for and by people with that peculiarly solipsistic sense of self- worth that the campus rebellions of the '60s engendered. Its owners, Jonathan and Judith Souweine, and its architect, Bill Rawn, believe themselves to hold "liberal, egalitarian political views," yet in every page of Kidder's book they are engaged in supervising the construction of a house that proclaims its occupants' superiority to more ordinary mortals; from time to time they express a mild degree of discomfort with the obvious contradiction between their stated political views and what Jonathan Souweine calls the "grandness" of the house, but this discomfort does not deter them from erecting what amounts to a monument to themselves. By the same token, the house is built by a small company, Apple Corps, whose four partners have a "social philosophy," practice "principled carpentry," and have a high opinion of their own superiority to run-of-the-mill construction companies; three of the four are dropouts from white-collar backgrounds, and though all three -- the fourth, too, for that matter -- are appealing fellows, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that they are playing at being carpenters.
I go on at length about this aspect of the book because Kidder himself seems either unaware of or indifferent to it. A few warts and blemishes appear in his portraits of these people, but by and large he accepts them as they present themselves to him, and he seems to have persuaded himself that they are engaged in an undertaking with which most readers can connect. Perhaps, having chosen to write about these people and this project, he then felt it necessary to invest his subject with more import than it can bear; this is a temptation to which authors often succumb, and Kidder is not to be unduly chastised for it. But it remains that although House is in certain respects antremely interesting and well-reported book, it is most profitably viewed as a single and atypical case history rather than as a story having broad implications.
It's a good story, though. The construction of a house is an undertaking that puts human beings in an odd relationship of cooperation and conflict, a relationship that begins as business but invariably acquires intensely personal overtones. This is precisely what happened to the Souweines and the men they hired, and this is what Kidder describes with subtlety and skill. He begins with that moment of great optimism, the groundbreaking, then gradually shifts into the more mundane matters -- most of them boil down to money -- that make house-building as painful as it is pleasant, that emphasize the differences in class, or at least station, between those who buy and those who build.
In this story all those conflicts are epitomized by a nasty and unnecessary argument over $660. When Apple Corps presents a bid of $146,660 to build the house, Jonathan Souweine demands that the $660 be eliminated: "It'll cost him $4,000 for appliances, he explains, and removing the $660, then adding the appliances, will bring the grand total to $150,000. 'So when my friends ask, I can say it's a hundred-and-fifty-thousand-dollar house.' " Apple finally gives in, but the affair angers all the partners, especially the one in charge of the project, Jim Locke, who throughout the project feels he has been subjected to a gratuitous power play. Though this does not alter his determination to do the best job possible, and though eventually he develops a liking for Judith Souweine, bitter references to the $660 are made over and again.
With an architect on the job there's extra potential for conflict. Bill Rawn gets on well with his clients -- he and the Souweines are old friends -- but he is constantly at war with the builders, who resent his tardy delivery of drawings just as he resents what he interprets as efforts by Apple Corps to circumvent his plans. For the most part these disagreements are expressed in a civilized way and resolved without undue rancor, but between architect and builder there is tension just as constant as that between buyer and builder. Without belaboring the point for a moment, Kidder very nicely demonstrates that when human beings get together to do something that has the potential to benefit them all, they have a very human way of getting on each others' nerves even as they accomplish the mission at hand.
Kidder is also very good, as he demonstrated in The Soul of a New Machine, about writing about mechanical and technical processes. He has mastered the language of architecture and construction, and interprets it in ways the lay reader can understand without feeling condescended to. From foundation to framing to interior walls to finish work, he brings the process of housebuilding to life; after reading House, you'll look at your own residence through new eye. With this, if with too little else, we can connect.