It’s never too late to review a great book. As we approach the announcement of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize winners, it’s worth remembering the little book that could. Paul Harding’s first novel, Tinkers, won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. A real Cinderella story, this short novel does what great literature should: it makes the reader work.
I originally received the book through a subscription to Powell’s Indiespensible. I’ll be honest, I didn’t sit down and tear through Tinkers in a single sitting. I started and stopped, then started again. By the time I finished the book, it was hard to believe the page count. But it made me remember the notion that patience is a virtue, and in this world of rush, click, send, maybe we all need a slow, contemplative book to help us realign our stories.
“To look at his life, to take the stock he always imagined a man would at his end, was to witness a shifting mass, the tiles of a mosaic spinning, swirling, reportraying, always recognizable swaths of colors, familiar elements, molecular units, intimate currents, but also independent now of his will, showing him a different self every time he tried to make an assessment.”
Tinkers opens with this sentence: “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.” Over the course of these eight days, Harding takes us on a journey through consciousness and memory, tracing the experiences of a dying man whose physical world begins to unravel.
George’s family attends to his needs while he is confined to bed. While hallucinating, the house he built cracks and shudders, collapses in an avalanche, and George finds himself surrounded by old photos, wood, glass, newspaper clippings and, most importantly, “The mangled brass works of the clocks he had been repairing.”
George was a meticulous repairer of clocks, working endlessly in his dimly lit basement. This sets the structure for the metaphorical use of clocks to examine time, timekeeping, and the dissolution of time in many ways throughout the novel. From the very first sentence time begins to wind down (eight days is typically the number of days a clock will operate before it needs to be wound), yet as George faces his impending death, the story opens backward through time, through the memory of George’s father, Howard, and then further still to Howard’s memory of his father.
While the novel is written in third person, there are several places where the point of view seems to shift into first person as the narrative enters the thoughts of a character. Harding also gives us a narrative without the use of quotation marks, allowing spoken words fit more seamlessly into the idea of the story as collected memories.
“I will be no more than the smoky arrangement of a set of rumors, and to their great-grandchildren I will be no more than a tint of some obscure color, and to their great grandchildren nothing they ever know about.”
Early in the novel, George’s grandson, Charlie, begins speaking to George. It seems we have entered an entirely new section of the book written in first person. Instead, we are listening to Charlie tell his grandfather about a book he found in the attic. Even George, with his fading consciousness, is unsure of who is talking to him. Finally, Charlie tells George, and thus the reader, who it is.
In chapter three (out of four), the story appears to shift to first person again. This section of the book is suspended in the past as Harding takes the reader into Howard’s thoughts and the memories of his father. We remain with Howard and the stories of his youth for the rest of the chapter.
For some readers, these craft choices will be confusing. Coupled with a hyper sensitive focus on language and poetic description, many will choose to put the book down before finishing. Those who prefer action, elaborate plots, and a wide cast of characters will be disappointed.
Only two characters in the novel are developed completely — George and Howard. We get a glimpse at the kind of man Howard’s father was, and we come to understand some of the women in the novel, but their presence is limited in terms of story. Whether Harding intended it or not, Tinkers is about fathers linked through time and the effects of choices and upbringing on future generations.
“It was as if the sky and the ground were turning end over end in front of him, around in a circle, so that the earth, as it swung up over the sky, dropped leaves and spears of grass and wildflowers and tree branches into the blueness and, as it rolled back down toward its proper place, in turn, received a precipitation of clouds and light and wind and sun from the sky.”
As the end of George’s life approaches, we learn that he has no sons of his own. He speaks primarily with his grandsons. He is still married and his sister is present, as well as his daughters, but their purpose in the story seems to be one of convenience, a way to present a man who is not entirely alone.
The narrative is dominated by the story of the past, the memories of three generations of men who are helpless and disconnected from the present, unable to establish a legacy, unable to connect to the possibilities of the future.
Despite the character and plot limitations, this is the kind of book that must be finished in order to appreciate its symphonic resonance. In many places the novel reads like a long prose poem, keeping the reader close to the main characters, their inner workings, the experience of epilepsy, the precise knowledge needed for repairing clocks, and the intimate connection to nature.
This novel will not satisfy everyone, nor should it. What work of art, be it sculpture, painting, song, poem, or story can satisfy the senses of everyone who engages with it?
The great accomplishment for this book is that Harding allows the reader into the thoughts and psyche of the main characters not by writing abstractly, but by writing with such concrete detail that it creates a rich, mesmerizing tone for the work. The prose approaches poetry throughout much of the book, and Harding creates beautiful, lasting images that are luminous and impressionistic and in many instances draw the reader into a kind of stillness.
“Everything was almost always obscure. Understanding shone when it did, for no discernible reason, and we were content.”
Tinkers demands a persistent effort by the reader. The sentences and description require attention. Every word must be read, preferably slowly. And the work as a whole must be allowed to resonate after the last page has turned, just as the memories of our grandparents and ancestors linger in the periphery, in the selective haze of memory that connects us to the past even as we tumble toward the future, toward our inevitable end.