It is beginning to look very much as if a major critical and commercial success of the new publishing season will be "Common Ground," a book by J. Anthony Lukas about Boston and the busing crisis. The early reviews are in, and their judgments range from the enthusiastic to the ecstatic; a large second printing has been ordered, even before the official publication date; the author is about to begin a national tour on his book's behalf. Can the best-seller lists and the prizes be far behind? Probably not.
If these and other good things do indeed come to pass, it will be a rare and gratifying case of true virtue justly rewarded. "Common Ground" seems to me -- and I choose my words with care and reflection -- an American classic, a book that will find a place not merely in the shelves where our national history is recorded but also in those where our literature is kept. This judgment was reached objectively, back in the late spring when I read the book in bound proofs, but objectivity did not come easily; Tony Lukas and I have been friends for nearly two decades, and I approached his book with all the anticipation and apprehension -- all the excess baggage, that is -- that complicate one's judgment of work by a person one cares about.
For precisely this reason I did not review "Common Ground," even though it is about many subjects -- race, class, urban life, the conflict between individual rights and community values -- that interest me deeply and about which I have written often. It is possible to review books (or paintings or compositions or anything else) by people with whom one is acquainted, but the work of a good friend must be kept out of bounds; readers are justifiably suspicious if the review is favorable, and the friendship will be jeopardized if it is not.
On the latter count, Tony Lukas and I have immediate and painfully instructive experience. About 15 years ago, before I had learned the rules, I reviewed a book of his called "Don't Shoot, We Are Your Children" for a magazine of modest but national circulation. I admired the book's reportage but disagreed with its conclusions, and said so. The result was that a silence passed between us for several years, one that finally ended when a chance encounter prompted us to express our mutual regret, and our mutual relief that we could get back to being friends.
"Common Ground" would have posed no such risks had I reviewed it, as my admiration for it is without reservation; to review it simply seemed to me improper, so I did not. But now that the wholly objective opinions of others have been published -- those of Robert Coles in The Washington Post Book World, for example, of Kai Erikson in The New York Times Book Review and of Jack Beatty in The Atlantic -- I feel free to have my own say, not so much about the book itself as about its author and the intense pleasure I am taking in his great success.
Of the book's many virtues and strengths I have little to remark upon that has not already been pointed out by the aforementioned reviewers and others. Coles compared what Lukas has done in "Common Ground" to the work of George Orwell and James Agee, Erikson praised the book's "relentless intelligence" and "extraordinary number of narrative threads," and both of them are right. I would add only that "Common Ground" seems to me the best book ever written about an American city and that -- there's an obvious connection -- the word that most aptly describes it is "Dickensian."
It's a word too often bandied about thoughtlessly, but here it is exactly right. "Common Ground" is not merely as populous as any Dickens novel, and as deeply rooted in the ordinary lives of ordinary city people, and as unsparing yet compassionate in its depiction of the bleak aspects of those lives. It also, without resorting to any of the cheap tricks of the "new" journalism, transcends mere reportage and commentary -- which actually are not all that "mere" -- to enter the higher precincts of literature. Reading "Common Ground" is like reading one of the great Victorian novels; it takes you into a huge world that is absolutely real and from which you emerge with a renewed awareness of life's abundant disappointments and possibilities.
This became clear to me within the first 50 or 60 pages, and so too did the understanding that these qualities grow directly out of Lukas' own character and personality. He is the most insatiably curious person I know, one who is constitutionally incapable of letting a fact rest until he has traced it down, seized it and squeezed out whatever messages it has for him. During his seemingly endless years of research on the book I told him more than once that he had to let go, that he was in danger of burying himself in minutiae, that he was working on trees instead of forests. I realize now that I was absolutely wrong; it is precisely because Tony wouldn't let go that "Common Ground" is so richly textured a tapestry, so abundant in telling detail, so expansive and inclusive and generous.
But there never was any question that the book would be solidly, even exhaustively, reported; anyone familiar with Tony's work for The New York Times during the 1960s and early '70s or with "Nightmare," his book about Watergate, would expect nothing less. The real surprise, and to me the truly extraordinary aspect of this triumph, is that he took all these facts and made what amounts to a novel out of them. We journalists, even the very best, are imprisoned by the limits of our craft; I happen to think it is an honorable craft, but a world view shaped by deadlines and newsroom rivalries can be a constricted one, and journalistic prose rarely rises above the ordinary. I had no particular reason to expect that "Common Ground," however skillfully done, would be an exception.
Yet Tony Lukas, whose purely journalistic skills were acknowledged in 1968 by the Pulitzer people, has done the improbable: He has written what, from out on my end of the limb, looks a lot like a work of art. That he has done so I find hugely gratifying -- as a professional reader of books, needless to say, but more importantly as a friend. Usually the successful work of others sparks a twinge of envy in me, as I suspect it does in most people who write or otherwise attempt to express themselves, but in the case of "Common Ground" I feel nothing except pleasure, satisfaction and pride. Our understanding of ourselves and our country has been greatly enriched by this splendid book, a friend of mine is its author, and on both counts I am as happy as could be.