Where the Heart Is

Hometown By Peter Davis Simon and Schuster. 331 pp. $14.50

HOMETOWN is about Hamilton, Ohio. But, as Peter Davis fairly screams early on Hometown is really about America, not just Hamilton Calling on the tradition of anthropological and literary studies of single American towns as microcosms of the national condition--particularly Robert and Helen Lynd's work on Muncie. Indiana and Sherwood Anderson's imagined Winesbury, Ohio--Davis conceived Hometown as the latest of these metaphorical excursions. But Davis is neither anthropologist nor novelist.

He is, rather a television and movie documentarian ("The Selling of the Pentagon" and "Hearts and Minds"), and his technique in Hometown draws on this video background. The book consists of several contiguous but not exactly connected vignettes: a high school basketball game, a murder and subsequent trial, a bitter strike, a hot rumor. These usually fascinating little dramas, it seems, are metaphors for life in Hamilton, which is, in turn, a metaphor for life in these United States Sort of a little far removed no?

Yes, and that's the big problem Davis's short stories make dandy reading he has a tine eye for detail, especially the little ties of behavior that signal long term, grinding animosity--but Hometown may not add up to anything more than a bundle of interesting observations. It's too much detail and too little thought--like Moby Dick with just the stuff about whales. Certainly Davis deserves much credit for digging into these people's lives and understanding them on their own terms, unlike so many outsiders in search of "the pulse of the nation. "For six years, on and off, he lived in Hamilton, and it shows. But what he learned in that time is not at all clear.

Davis asked a census specialist for a town "northern enough to be industrial, southern enough to have a gently rural aspect, western enough to have once been on the frontier, eastern enough to have a past." He came-up with Hamilton, "a city, a self-contained town, a suburb, a satellite in the orbits of both Cincinnati and Dayton, a minor metropolitan cluster, a country seat, a bump on the plain, a galactic microdot where 63.189 people want to see what will happen next. "Davis probably could not have done better in his search for an American stew, but his selection begs the question of the value of conveniently designating one city or town as a microcosm for the larger whole Colonial historians, faced with a torrent of town studies recently, have come to no firm conclusions about their significance in studying a much more homogeneous society. For such an astoundingly diverse place as contemporary America--where the distinctions between society's winners and losers, not to mention regional differences in climate, history and social structure are immense--the very idea of a "typical" town is hard to swallow.

The real news in America emerges so often from exactly these regional differences, from the Civil War to the current flight of industry to the South and West, that picking a microdot in the middle might miss the point. How much can you learn about major league baseball by studying the teams that finish third in each division' Something, for sure, but not what you probably wanted to find out.

DAVIS'S RELIANCE on anecdotes is all the more frustrating because he seems to have something to say about Hamilton--and America--but it too frequently gets buried by the narrative. As a bona fide resident of Hamilton, Davis can avoid the cliches so common to "mood of the country" pieces, the kind made most famous by Haynes Johnson of the Washington Post and regurgitated with such predictability come the New Hampshire primary. ("The waitress poured another cup of coffee at the Portsmouth Diner and talk, as it tends to at this time of year, turned to politics...") Davis has a terrific feel for the mechanics of social rituals and hierarchies, and the best of Hometown uncovers a city only an insider could know. He tells of a widely believed rumor linking the handsome, popular WASP mayor to the socially prominent wife of a close Jewish friend; the "social marketplace" of Hamilton, a beauty shop frequented by women of diverse backgrounds; and, finally in the book's dramatic conclusion, the trial of a popular music teacher for masturbating in a department store bathroom.

The agonizing story of Sam Shie, a man persecuted viciously for a "crime" that probably never even happened, splits Hamilton down the middle, and seems (yet again) a metaphor for the divisions that have made Hamilton an unhappy place for so long. The people of Hamilton, says Davis, all live within little cocoons within the larger cocoon of Hamilton itself, unwilling to understand the feelings and aspirations of their neighbors. With no help from a newspaper that "exemplified the lack of communication among the sum of Hamilton's parts," the people wander in a stratified world that defies the much-loved American label of "melting pot." The lines are not exclusively economic--though money is the most important divider--but the lines exist, dividing the city into separate and unequal components.

Davis also never succumbs to good-old-daysism, noting how the discontinuities of the present have long existed in equally virulent strains. Unlike the town leaders, Davis realizes that the chief objective of Hamilton's youth has always been to leave the city. "America," Davis writes in a pithy epigram, "was not where you started but where you started over." Hamilton was and remains a place to start, not start over. But social mobility never lived up to its reputation, and so Davis implies, neither did America.

But we can't know for sure what Davis thinks about these and other provocative questions he raises because he quickly retreats into the mark of his metaphors. Concurrent with his work on Hometown, Davis supervised production of a television documentary series chronicling life in Muncie, Indiana. The programs (I have seen one) use the same style as the book--little dramas meant to illuminate the whole. The tactic does not lack merit entirely; only a crank would demand a portrait based exclusively on generalizations and "facts and figures." But Hometown rests exclusively on the evocative anecdote, the symbol instead of the substance. His hints at Hamilton's significance for all of our hometowns never amount to much more than just that, and so Peter Davis gives us Hamilton but not Hometown.