2010: Tinkers by Paul Harding

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From the dust jacket:

An old man lies dying. Confined to bed in his living room, he sees the walls around him begin to collapse, the windows come loose from their sashes, and the ceiling plaster fall off in great chunks, showering him with a lifetime of debris: newspaper clippings, old photographs, wool jackets, rusty tools, and the mangled brass works of antique clocks. Soon, the clouds from the sky above plummet down on top of him, followed by the stars, until the black night covers him like a shroud. He is hallucinating, in death throes from cancer and kidney failure.

A methodical repairer of clocks, he is now finally released from the usual constraints of time and memory to rejoin his father, an epileptic, itinerant peddler, whom he had lost seven decades before. In his return to the wonder and pain of his impoverished childhood in the backwoods of Maine, he recovers a natural world that is both indifferent to man and inseparable from him, menacing and awe-inspiring.

Tinkers is about the legacy of consciousness and the porousness of identity from one generation to the next. At once heartbreaking and life affirming, it is an elegiac meditation on love, loss, and the fierce beauty of nature.

My thoughts:

First of all, this is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. The prose sweeps back and forth across time, from father to son, tinker to clock repairer, epileptic to terminal cancer patient, like strokes of paint from an artist’s brush, pulling in this story of father and son onto one cohesive canvas. It’s phenomenal. For those of you who have read any Marilynne Robinson (winner of the Pulitzer in 2005 for Gilead, which I’ll be getting back to further down the line, and runner up for the Pulitzer in 1982 for Housekeeping), you would not be surprised, reading Tinkers, to find that Paul Harding studied under Robinson at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Their prose is poetic in very similar ways, and the relationship between father and son that is the basis of Robinson’s novel Gilead is also one of the larger themes in Tinkers, but in no way does Harding ever feel derivative of Robinson in this book. As his debut novel, he finds his voice, his region (New England) and fills them with terribly real characters.

As George Washington Crosby lies dying in a hospital bed in his living room, surrounded by family, and unable to keep wound all of the clocks that he’s filled his house with over his years as an horologist, the pendulums stop and the springs wind down, and without the metronomic ticking to keep him tethered in time, finds himself drifting back to his childhood, and to memories of his father and the wagon he took around the countryside, and all the people he attempted to sell his wares to. It’s in some of these brief interactions that we see the perfectly-crafted glimpses of humanity: the housewives who endlessly argue and question and ask for their old soap after the packaging is changed, or the old hermit his father meets once a year after the thaw to sell provisions to and smoke a pipe with, the one time a year the father ever smokes. But at the center of it all is family, and it’s ability to elicit joy and pain and confusion, sometimes simultaneously.

This is a magnificently crafted novel. Though I have not read the two other finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction from 2010, Love in Infant Monkeys by Lydia Millet, and In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, by Daniyal Mueenuddin, Tinkers found it’s way into my top five favorite novels before I even finished it and put it down. It is a short novel, coming in at only 191 pages, and though it could be finished quickly, each time I’ve read I find myself pausing over passages and rereading them, trying to draw out my time spent with the novel, and always a little disappointed when I come to the final page and find there is no more story in which to reside.

Favorite passage:

There is a fantastic two and a half-page description of an epileptic seizure from the father’s point of view that is absolutely stunning, but far too long to include here, so I’ll share my second-favorite:

Your cold mornings are filled with the heartache about the fact that although we are not at ease in this world, it is all we have, that it is ours but that it is full of strife, so that all we can call our own is strife; but even that is better than nothing at all, isn’t it? And as you split frost-laced wood with numb hands, rejoice that your uncertainty is God’s will and His grace toward you and that that is beautiful, and part of a greater certainty, as your father always said in his sermons and to you at home. And as the ax bites into the wood, be comforted that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it.

Why you should read it:

It’s a wonderful example of literature, with some of the most evocative, lyrical prose I’ve ever read. If you’re not into that sort of thing, you probably won’t like it.

Currently reading: Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

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