Tracy Kidder is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of ‘The Soul of a New Machine’, which sounds like it might be an interesting read today: written in 1982, the book chronicles the early days of computer development. Recently, I got a free copy of his 1993 book ‘Old Friends’; at 352 pages, this book started off slowly and wound down from there. But in spite of that, I kept reading – and I’m glad I did.
It turns out that Kidder specializes in a form of writing which employs something called ‘artifactual narrative techniques’, which basically means that he writes a form of non-fiction that has fiction-like elements to it – or vice versa. In the case of ‘Old Friends’, Kidder actually visited Linda Manor, a Massachusetts nursing home, every day for two years and came away with 89 spiral notebooks filled with observations. From that, Kidder then takes his information and composes a very linear story that is still episodic and fiction-like due to multiple characters and storylines.
The two most important characters in ‘Old Friends’ are a pair of roommates: 72 year old Joe is a stroke victim who was struck down early in life and has much to be resentful about, and the ever optimistic Lou, a 90 year old blind man who doesn’t let his age-related problems interfere with his appreciation of life. Knowing that their time is limited, the two men get to know each other and in spite of their advanced age, are still able to learn and grow from their interactions with each other.
Exploring the concepts of death, aging, and old folks’ homes may seem a little unpalatable to some, but Kidder deals frankly and unsentimentally with how these people live their lives. Some are dealing with failing bodies but still have active minds; others have minds that have decayed in advance of their bodies. Whatever the case, each situation is equally intriguing and thought provoking.
It made me think of my namesake and great-great aunt, who spent the last ten years of her life crippled by an increasingly debilitating case of Alzheimer’s; she lived in a home such as the one portrayed in this book. I remember also the poor old things whose bodies would no longer cooperate, but whose minds were still crisp and active; the lonely; the wanderers; the prematurely disabled, younger in body but relegated to life in an old folks’ home in order to give their families some respite.
Through his characters, Kidder explores the concepts of heaven and hell.