This Thursday, when he visits the University of Indianapolis to give a talk, Tracy Kidder will turn 70, an age at which people tend to see a lot of doctors.
But his doctors are more interesting than ours.
The eminent practitioner of long-form journalism stays in touch with Dr. Paul Farmer, whose phenomenal life as a health-care crusader for the world’s poor was the stuff of Kidder’s celebrated 2003 book Mountains Beyond Mountains.
He remains close to the family of a man named Deogratias who miraculously escaped civil war-torn Burundi and Rwanda, reached the United States with little English and no means, and then proceeded to become a doctor and return to Africa to establish a clinic for the poor. He’s the subject of the 2005 book Strength in What Remains.
Just lately, Kidder’s gotten to know a Boston doctor who ministers to the homeless – “one of the most genial, attractive and successfully motivated people I’ve ever met.” That guy may turn out to be a book or at least an article for Kidder, the author who has made an art of profiling individuals and in turn serves as guides to the larger world.
As he puts it, “I’m always less interested in subjects than in people.”
It started, more or less, with maverick computer engineer Tom West in the seminal Soul of a New Machine, Kidder’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize winner. It continued through a string of “ordinary” protagonists, such as a schoolteacher and a family building a house, before slamming into an extraordinary character named Farmer who was applying his Harvard education to the destitute villages of Haiti.
As it happens, Farmer spoke at UIndy just last month.
Kidder’s address is scheduled for 7 p.m. at UIndy Hall of Schwitzer Student Center.
“I wanted to write about Farmer because it was just a really good story,” Kidder tells me in a phone interview from his home in western Massachusetts. “I did not set out to do a good deed, telling the world about TB and AIDS in Haiti. But if I was to do that, that would still be the right approach.”
Translation: The experience with Farmer, and with successive exemplary medical missionaries, has wrought some change – not fundamental, but developmental – in a writer who spent most of his career keeping the “I” out of his books and letting others play doctor to the world’s ills.
Take those Boston street people, for example.
“I don’t want to use the old canary-in-a-coal-mine analogy, but the future is to a large degree embodied in the homeless,” he says. “Things that we don’t want to face. Mental illness and other problems. Most of us living in cities confront it every day.”
Causes, yes. “Things bother me,” says the quiet chronicler of things that bother other people. War profiteering is one of those great wrongs Kidder muses about getting his hands around. So is the “astonishingly reckless” behavior of contemporary high-end entrepreneurs. But by no means has the veteran storyteller evolved into a pamphleteer.
His two most recent published works are a self-deprecating memoir about his Vietnam tour (My Detachment); and a team effort with a revered longtime editor, Richard Todd, called Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction.
A memoir and an instructional text might carry the ring of valediction for a writer past the standard age for reportorial legwork. But fans need not fear. Kidder just finished a book of heavy-lifting journalism that revisits the tech industry to which he introduced many of us back in the ’80s, and he sounds on the phone more like the irrepressible kid Richard Todd took under his wing a half-century ago than an aspirant to a fishing boat off Cape Cod.
He and his artist wife of 44 years, Frances, do enjoy their four grandchildren; but the holder of every major award in American nonfiction still eyes mountains beyond mountains.
Meanwhile, he’s guardedly sanguine about the future of his profession, even as he worries about the anarchistic impact of the Internet upon it. Call him nostalgic, but he points to news about physical books’ overtaking e-books in sales and the resurgence of independent bookstores. And newspapers may be emaciated, but they’re far from dead, as evidenced by blockbuster investigations by Kidder’s local Boston Globe that are featured in two current films, Spotlight and Black Mass. Like brilliant doctors who forsake wealth for service, such sparks of defiance keep Kidder going.
“Can craftsmanship still be practiced in this society? Can meaningful work still be done? That question still interests me.”