Tinkers by Paul Harding
Reviewed by Harvey Fenigsohn, April 2011
The opening sentence of Tinkers, Paul Harding's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, reveals the novelist's ingenious talent. Harding tightly compresses a spring which, when released, propels his entire narrative. The compressed spring is the simple statement, "George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died." This one, short, declarative sentence thrusts forward all that follows. As we might infer from the opening sentence, the novel extends over the "eight days before he died," ending as George does. From the dying man's hallucinations spring dreams, visions, and memories—the essence of a novel well worth reading. In Tinkers, his first novel, Harding meditates deeply about the meaning of time, memory and mortality.
Handy, practical and self-reliant, a quintessential American, George Crosby, one of the tinkers of the novel, once built his own home. Now, on his deathbed, "nearly a ghost," he imagines his beloved construction falling apart, burying him as the whole universe collapses. Like the fallen house of the doomed man's fantasies, his mind and body disintegrate into "confused oblivion." Moving smoothly from the real to the surreal, the author sounds a major theme: the impermanence of our lives, our mutability, our transience. Harding reflects on the fragility and vulnerability of all we create and all we are.
The author describes how George once sold and repaired antique clocks. These clocks become perfect symbols for Harding's concern with the inexorable limitations of time. As a skilled horologist, passionate about his work, George temporarily controlled time; "the imps of disorder are banished." But the ticking of the precise machines now signals the finite limits of his time, as his organs, like the clocks he repaired, finally wind down. When George discovered that all the clocks in the room have stopped ticking, he demanded they be rewound. His grandson rewound them but it is too late for George; his time will soon be up. Harding finds a new way to tell an old truth about the killing power of time.
Harding describes an old man attempting to take stock of his life but envisioning only "a shifting mass, the tiles of a mosaic spinning, swirling . . . independent now of his will, showing him a different self every time he tried to make an assessment." George's sense of who he was, and who he is, now explodes into fragments of lost memory. Harding questions the puzzling nature of memory. How much does our sense of self, our very identity, depend on what we remember and understand of our past?
Through flashbacks, Harding deftly weaves an account of George's present with indelible remembrances of his boyhood. George remembers that, 70 years ago, his father, Howard Aaron Crosby, the other "tinker" of the title, drove a horse-drawn wagon through the New England countryside, selling dry goods and mending wares. The author relates much more of Howards' life than what George could know, but the flashback serves well as a narrative device to tell two stories at once. Transcending his deathbed delusions, George recalls poignant scenes of his childhood as the son of a father who abandoned him. It is these bittersweet memories which enable George to finally understand himself as he comes to understand and forgive his father. The author reveals the healing power of memory.
Harding's arresting language captures the hardscrabble lives of back woods farmers in the early 20th century—impoverished families driven nearly mad by the isolation of winter and the omnipresence of death: "they came to the wagon like sleep walkers: bright eyed and ravenous. Sometimes he came out of the woods with orders for a coffin—a child, a wife wrapped up in burlap and stiff in the woodshed." With his control of language, Harding convinces us; we sense the verisimilitude of his settings, the authenticity of his characters.
Only Howard's reverence for the natural world relieved the drudgery of a nearly penniless tradesman. Pausing his wagon, Howard communed with nature, and imagined himself a poet. To help us sense Howard's delight in the beauty of his surrounding, Harding artfully transforms prose into poetry, "The bark of birches glows silver and white at dusk/The bark of birches peels like parchment/Fireflies blink in the thick grass and form halos around hedges." These passages, alone, make Tinkers a novel to appreciate.
Howard suffered from epilepsy at a time when this disorder was little understood. Untreated, he endured unpredictable seizures and Harding's charged metaphors convey the intensity of these convulsions, "during his seizures . . . his brain nearly fried in his skull." Harding describes how the attacks, striking like a lightning bolt, electrified George, granting him the intuition and insights of a visionary. But the author hardly romanticizes the disease of epilepsy as he describes "Howard's blistered brain." Both brutal and tender, Harding's searing depictions of Howard's seizures realistically present the danger and pain of this disorder.
The author movingly dramatizes a scene when George's father literally and figuratively wounds his son, biting the boy's hand as George places a stick in the convulsing man's mouth. George comes to resent his father's very existence, but ultimately forgave his father, for even then, George had mixed feelings toward "a mad father whom he loved and pitied and hated." Howard also suffered a bitter wife with little sympathy for her husband's illness. Harding reveals her contempt for Howard in her cruel description of him as "a birdbrain, a magpie, a loony bird, flapping around with those fits." When he discovered his wife's plan to commit him to an asylum, Howard fled, making a new life with an adoring wife.
Howard abandons his family, leaving them destitute, but Harding presents Howard's flight as an act of liberation. We see Howard redeemed by the transformative strength of love. He seems to forget his old family, but years later, the fugitive father makes one brief visit to his old family. Just before he dies, on the eighth day, George remembers that visit—comforted by his last memory of a lost father he never stopped loving. It's no accident that Harding makes George's final thoughts the memory of his father's visit. Father and son, separated for so long, finally reunite. At last, George can die in peace. So ends Harding's meditation on time, memory and mortality.
Harding's work will not please every reader. Some will object to a novel so loosely plotted—a narrative interrupted by mystical descriptions of nature, the history and repair of clocks, the funeral of a mouse, and complete directions on how to make a bird's nest. Readers preferring the plain style will object to poetic passages of elaborate, extended sentences, one over a page long. Harding will disappoint those with little appetite for stream of consciousness narration and philosophical ruminations. They may sense a young novelist straining to express the ineffable, struggling to express that which defies language. Some readers might conclude that Harding may resemble Howard's father, a minister who went mad trying to explain the meaning of life.
Perhaps, but whatever its weaknesses, Harding's novel is an achievement. A virtuoso of style, Harding has a poet's gift for figurative language. He can evoke images of "splitting frozen wood so brittle that it rang when you split it" and "the heartbreak of a cold sun." He can describe wind "like a rumor, like the murmur of old men muttering" and a hermit "attended by a small but avid swarm of flies," choosing just the right details to change fiction into fact.
Alternating elegiac and celebratory, brooding and ecstatic registers, Tinkers becomes more than an excellent work of fiction. Rather, Harding transforms his novel into a spiritual exploration. He attempts to achieve nothing less than unveiling the secrets of our existence. That he doesn't succeed is no surprise. It is the quality of his efforts that we admire.