The old friends in the title are Lou Freed, 90, and Joe Torchio, 72, residents at Linda Manor nursing home near Northampton, Mass. Lou, a shoemaker’s son, is a gentle family man who abhors salty language. Joe, a former probation officer, is a rougher sort whose temperamental outbursts mask a sensitive soul. Cast together as roommates, the two men become fast friends. This is not just the story of their quiet heroism in the face of death but a celebration of the regenerative abilities of the human spirit.
Like a novelist, Kidder, whose previous nonfiction books include Among Schoolchildren, House and The Soul of a New Machine (which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1982), drenches himself in character and event, then delivers an account that is alternately spry, comical and heartbreaking. The residents of Linda Manor show uncommon courage as they cope within a “community founded merely on illness,” and some of them are better for it. Of mercurial Joe, Kidder writes, “Strangely…when his powers to act had greatly diminished, Joe had taken control of his life.” It is largely Lou’s friendship, Kidder shows in this eloquent work, that has not only transformed Joe’s life but has also lent a new meaning to Lou’s own. (Houghton Mifflin, $22.95)
Talking With…Tracy Kidder
Witness to the Final Days
When Tracy Kidder’s editor, Richard Todd, suggested that he write about life in a nursing home, the author resisted, considering the topic dull and unpleasant. Then he became intrigued. “Some of the sights, sounds and smells were horrifying,” he says. “But I got used to that. I could see the people beneath the symptoms. Most difficult were moments when I’d be overwhelmed by the cruelty of these endings for perfectly lovely people.”
Kidder, 47, visited Linda Manor (near his Western Massachusetts home) for nearly a year, filling 90 notebooks with his observations and writing 10 drafts before he had a polished manuscript. “I like the writing in this book better than in the other ones,” he says. “It’s more precise.”
Writing was not Kidder’s fist career choice. Born in New York City, the lawyer’s son majored in government at Harvard until, bored during a lecture given by Professor Henry Kissinger, he decided to sign up for English. “I thought writing was a good way to meet girls.” (It was not until seven years later, however, that he met his wife, Frances, a painter and mother of their two children, Nathaniel, 19, and Alice, 14.) After a year as an Army intelligence officer in Vietnam and three years at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Kidder eked out a living as a freelance writer before mastering the art of the nonfiction best-seller.
Though Old Friends is finished, Kidder continues to visit Lou and Joe. Would the writer himself want to end his years in a nursing home? “Maybe, if I had a friend,” he says, “I could stand it.”