Review: “Tinkers” by Paul Harding

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Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Paul Harding

I must confess that I’ve had a cobwebbed copy of Paul Harding’s “Tinkers” on my desk for almost half a year now. I’d first heard of the book on some “Top 10 (or 100?) Books” list at the end of last year, thought it an interesting read, and subsequently rented it via Bookswim. It’s no tome (it’s a measly 190 pages), yet I seemed always to perpetually defer reading it for the abstract future. Maybe I was anxious of any depressive effects it might have on me; the opening line, “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died,” wasn’t exactly the most cheerful hook. But when I finally did hunker down to finish the damn thing, I emerged from behind the book not filled with gloom, but rather, a bittersweet sense of having to let go of something deeply cherished.

"Tinkers" won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

As I’d earlier mentioned, there is indeed death; two in fact. In a helical manner, the story intertwines the deaths–and lives–of its two main characters, George Crosby and his father Howard Crosby. The story begins with George’s impending death. We first find him on his deathbed with his family keeping vigil around him, ravaged by a host of diseases. In his more healthful days, we learn, he was a repairer of clocks and quite a handyman. A tinker, just like his salesman father Howard, who himself was also beset by disease. Howard’s ordeals were terrifying epileptic seizures that gnawed away at not just his well-being, but also his family’s. George as a preteen had run away from home, albeit unsuccessfully, conflicted in his love for his father and his hate for his father’s “madness.” In an ironic twist, it is Howard who would run away–successfully–upon learning of his wife’s plan to send him to a mental institution. He started anew in a different town with a new name, a new job, and even a new wife. In the novel’s third chapter, after George’s and Howard’s disappearance from each other’s lives, we are afforded the backstory of Howard’s own father, a minister who also suffered from bouts of madness, and whom Howard as a child had watched carted away to a facility for the insane. Through this revelation Howard’s running away is imbued a tinge of tragedy (history repeats, a father and son are separated yet again); we can also infer that upon Howard’s disappearance, George must have felt something akin to Howard’s pining as a child for his own father. In his new second life Howard passed away rather quietly, beside his second wife Megan, musing about how he may just be a shadow of another, which itself may also be a shadow of another. The story arcs back to George on his deathbed: His last thought, we learn, was of Christmas dinner 1953, the night that Howard, having tracked him down, paid him a surprise visit. In a beautifully hushed ending, neither declaiming nor trumpeting, father and son are finally reunited, “joined” like parts of a clock.

The story conjured up in me a memory of Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon,” which though a completely different being in itself, tackled the same subject (fathers and sons) in an equally moving way. The narrative is rather beautifully fragmented, with tenses and perspectives constantly shifting, like a live creature in itself, breathing and moving to and fro. Also dynamic is the language itself, which is just so amazingly pliant, so alive. The novel is such a beautiful collage of scenes. So many stand out, but not in a slapdash vignette-y kind of way. Among those burned in my memory: The scene in which George learns all the clocks have been stopped (“he heard the ratchet and click of clocks, which did not seem to him to tick but to breathe and to give one another comfort by merely being in one another’s presence, like a gathering of people”); Howard’s encounters with the hermit claiming to have known Nathaniel Hawthorne; Howard eavesdropping on young George giving a dead mouse a Viking’s burial; Howard’s wish for his son to have successfully run away, only to find him and return him home (“I just wish that you had made it beyond the bounds of this cold little radius, that when the archaeologists brush off this layer of our world in a million years and string off the boundaries of our rooms and tag and number every plate and table leg and shinbone, you would not be there; yours would not be the remains they would find and label juvenile male…“); Howard’s painful separation from his father (“I had lately noticed him looking at me with a sort of wistfulness, as if he were not looking at me, but at a drawing or photograph of me, as if he were remembering me”). I can go on and on, and construct possibly the longest run-on sentence in history, but I’ll stop while I’m ahead.

Harding apparently had a hell of a time getting any takers for his morose little novel, and when it finally did get published, it failed to attract the attention of any sizeable readership. With I believe only around 7,000 copies sold, it surprisingly landed the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I’m sure by now, after its anointment and affirmation by the Pulitzer, that that number has increased severalfold, and rightly so.

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