Sunday, February 6, 2011


Some weeks I have an idea of a book I want to read, perhaps one that I have been noticing or a recommendation from someone, and sometimes, as is the case with this week, I have no idea what I am going to leave the bookstore with. I'm not sure what drew me to pick up Tinkers, written by Paul Harding, but after reading the summary, I realized that the content of the novel was like nothing that I had read about before, and felt compelled to leave the store, book in tow. 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. It is spellbinding, written with breathtaking lyricism and tenderness, Harding has created a rare and beautiful novel of spiritual inheritance and acute psychological and metaphysical suspense.

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, till the black night covers him like a shroud. He is hallucinating, in death throes from cancer and kidney failure.

As time collapses into memory, George Washington Crosby travels deep into his past where he is reunited with his father and relives the wonder and pain of his impoverished New England youth. George repairs clocks for a living, and as he lies dying on a hospital bed in his living room, "right where they put the dining room table, fitted with its two extra leaves for holiday dinners" he revisits his turbulent childhood as the oldest son of an epileptic smalltime traveling salesman. The descriptions of the father's epilepsy and the cold halo of chemical electricity that encircled him immediately before he was struck by a full seizure are stunning, and the household's sadness permeates the narrative as George returns to more melancholy scenes. In Harding’s skillful evocation, Crosby’s life, seen from its final moments, becomes a mosaic of memories, ‘showing him a different self every time he tried to make an assessment.’

A tinker is a mender, and in Harding’s spellbinding debut, he imagines the old, mendable horse-and-carriage world. The objects of the past were more readily repaired than our electronics, but the living world was a mystery, as it still is, as it always will be. And so in this rhapsodic novel of impending death, Harding considers humankind’s contrary desires to conquer the “imps of disorder” and to be one with life, fully meshed within the great glimmering web.

Harding’s interest is in the universalities: nature and time and the murky character of memory. The small, important recollections are rendered with an exactitude that is poetic. This is a book so meticulously assembled that vocabulary choices like “craquelure” and “scrieved” – far from seeming pretentious – serve as reminders of how precise and powerful a tool good English can be. The prose are lyrical and specific, making this novel a poignant exploration of where we may journey when the clock has barely a tick or two left and we really can’t go anywhere at all. It is an especially gorgeous example of novelistic craftsmanship.

"Tinker, tinker. Tin, tin, tin. Tintinnabulation. There was the ring of pots and buckets. There was also the ring in Howard Crosby's ears, a ring that began at a distance and came closer, until it sat in his ears, then burrowed into them. His head thrummed as if it were a clapper in a bell. Cold hopped onto the tips of his toes and rode on the ripples of the ringing throughout his body until his teeth clattered and his knees faltered and he had to hug himself to keep from unraveling. This was his aura, a cold halo of chemical electricity that encircled him immediately before he was struck by a full seizure. Howard had epilepsy."

Harding's language dazzles whether he's describing the workings of clocks, sensory images of nature, the many engaging side characters who populate the book, or even a short passage on how to build a bird nest. The most memorable parts of this novel may be the depiction of a nineteenth-century landscape complete with mule-drawn carts and “frozen wood so brittle that it rang when you split it.” Tinkers is a finely crafted piece of work by a writer who clearly respects his own trade.

"Now the horologist looks upon an open-faced, fairy-book contraption; gears lean to and fro like a lazy machine in a dream. The universe's time cannot be marked thusly. Such a crooked and flimsy device could only keep the fantastic hours of unruly ghosts." 

At only a very brief 192 pages, it still packs an emotional punch that books of three times its length often lack. It's a novel that you'll want to savor for its stunning yet economical use of language, for its descriptions of nature, of illness and health, and for its profound understanding of humanity's deepest needs and desires for family and home. I found reading it to be an incredibly moving experience, yet Harding is in such control of his material that it never devolves into mushiness or becomes maudlin.

Tinkers is a novel rich in close observation, short in dialogue and event. While normally this would be a cloying combination, the sharp richness of Harding’s language and the precision of his descriptions makes the novel both transfixing and compelling. Harding brings a clarity to the work which sets it clearly apart. This is underscored, resoundingly, by the deep emotional effect of the novel’s closing pages, a moment of grace, of synchronicity, of father and son, which will break your heart. Tinkers confers on the reader the best privilege fiction can afford, the illusion of ghostly proximity to other human souls, and is cumulatively moving because it is woven together into the single quilt of our humanity.

"Light changes, our eyes blink and see the world from the slightest difference of perspective and our place in it has changed infinitely..." 

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