Literary Corner Cafe

Monday, October 25, 2010

Book Review - Tinkers by Paul Harding

I usually dislike it when a book is described by someone as being “difficult.” As long as we’re proficient in the language the book is written in, no book should be “difficult” for the careful and attentive reader. Or so I thought. Paul Harding’s surprise Pulitzer Prize winner, Tinkers, needs a little time and more than one reading to understand the depth of its many layers. Tinkers weighs in at fewer than 200 pages, yet its prose is so dense and detailed that by the time we’ve finished (often at a single sitting) we feel as though we’ve read a 1,000 page family saga.

Tinkers opens as George Washington Crosby, an eighty-year-old member of a long line of New Englanders, lies only eight days from death due to renal failure, “on a rented hospital bed, placed in the center of his living room.” As George, who recognizes that he’s surrounded by family and friends, begins to hallucinate and weave between consciousness and unconsciousness, Harding begins to weave the strands of his book, telling us the story, not only of George, but of Howard, George’s father, and even Howard’s father, George’s grandfather. These three men will each take turns narrating the book, though Harding’s narrative is far from linear. George’s memory wanders back seventy years, to 1927, then it pulls itself to the present again, then wanders back once more.

In a way, all three of the Crosby men were tinkers. When George’s grandfather’s mental acuity began to fade, he began to tinker with lives, telling his parishioners that really, the devil might not be “all that bad” after all. George had been a clock repairman, and he was fascinated with the gears and tumblers that caused them to tick and chime, just as life ticks away – little by little – each day. It was George’s father, Howard, however, who was the true tinker, traveling the countryside of rural Maine in his wagon, drawn by his ancient mule, Prince Edward, selling pots and pans, needles and thread, buckets and thimbles. Howard can “shoot a rabid dog, deliver a baby, put out a fire, pull a rotten tooth, cut a man’s hair.” But just as George, near death, envisions his world breaking apart and hallucinates his house and the sky and the stars falling in on him, Howard’s world, too, breaks apart, not in death, but in grand mal epileptic seizures so frightening and terrible that after a particularly bad one that occurred on Christmas day, Howard’s wife, Katherine, makes the decision to commit him to a mental asylum.

Howard’s story is the most in the way of plot that Tinkers offers. Rather than being a “story,” Tinkers is a meditation, an exploration of time, of memory, and what it means to live and die.

For me, the book was more about Howard than about George, and I was initially disappointed in that. Harding’s opening paragraph, which centers around George, is just so mesmerizing and so compelling that I immediately wanted “more George” and couldn’t help but feel a little dismayed when the narrative didn’t linger, but immediately dove back to 1927 and Howard. Still, when all is said and done, I found Howard to be the most interesting character in the book, though I liked all three Crosby men and found I could sympathize with each.

While Howard’s wife may have defined her husband by his epilepsy and the surrounding countryside may have defined Howard by his trade, Howard, himself seems to be defined by his poeticism and his extraordinary love for nature. While all of Tinkers is gorgeously written, I think Harding’s best writing occurs in Howard’s sections. The following is one of my favorite passages. It’s spring and Howard has just fed Prince Edward a carrot before wading into a field of wildflowers:

Howard closed his eyes and inhaled. He smelled cold water and cold, intrepid green. Those early flowers smelled like cold water. Their fragrance was not the still perfume of high summer; it was the mineral smell of cold, raw green.

In the fall, Howard is transfixed by Maine’s “blazing maple leaves.” And in the winter, he visits an old hermit who lives deep in the snowbound Maine woods. As the hermit emerges from the forest to meet Howard, Howard thinks about the blur that exists between humanity and wildness:

No one could imagine how a man could survive one winter alone and exposed in the woods, never mind decades of them. Howard, instead of trying to explain the hermit’s existence in terms of hearth fires and trappers’ shacks, preferred the blank space the old man actually seemed to inhabit; he liked to think of some fold in the woods, some seam that only the hermit could sense and slip into, where the ice and snow, where the frozen forest itself, would accept him and he would no longer need fire or wool blankets, but instead flourish wreathed in snow, spun in frost, with limbs like cold wood and blood like frigid sap.

With musings like these, we wonder if Howard is so acutely aware of nature because of his epilepsy, which is preceded by a lightning like aura, or if he is simply a dreamer, a philosopher, a thinker and a tinker. Howard doesn’t remember any of his seizures, of course, but he is terribly aware of the aura that precedes them, so much so that he sometimes wonders what it’s like to be “full of lightning.” To be “split open from the inside by lightning.” He tells us that when the bolt of lightning that was epilepsy touched his flesh, “he became pure, unconscious energy. It was like the opposite of death, or a bit of the same thing death was, but from a different perspective.” Whichever, it’s clear that Howard experiences the world – and life – in way most of us never do.

While many people see the theme of Tinkers as memory or death or a meditation on the time allotted to us here on earth, I think Harding was exploring the idea that nothing – not even inanimate objects – ever really dies. We, and everything else on earth, are simply transformed, much as Howard is transformed by his seizures. This theme of reabsorption seems to be highlighted, not only by Howard’s experience of epilepsy, but by his feelings regarding two ancient Native Americans who appear and disappear to repair a birch bark or chase salmon in the cold water. Was the old Indian really able to return the forest without a trace, Howard wonders, or was he “reabsorbed back, not only into trunk and root, stone and leaf but into light and shadow and season and time itself.”

To me, this reabsorption and transformation is what Tinkers is really all about. Howard – and Harding – seem to be telling us that we’re all changing, all of the time, we’re all dying and being transformed, every minute of every day. When Howard finds an old book in an attic, he writes in his journal, “The dust in the air was made up of the book I found. I breathed the book before I saw it; tasted the book before I read it.”

Tinkers is a luminous novel. It’s a beautiful meditation on living, dying, being transformed, nature, and the inexorable passage of time. One of the things I loved most about it was its gorgeous, poetic prose. So many American novels today are written in a very spare, stripped-down prose, and I’m not knocking spare, stripped-down prose. In some novels, it’s really the only thing that will work. But Tinkers needed something more to make it work, and Harding is the perfect prose stylist to provide that “something more.” His prose is exuberant, it’s joyful, it sings:

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.

And yes, Tinkers is that rare novel that is truly difficult. We can’t know with certainly how reliable – or unreliable – its narrators are. Some readers will find the beautiful imagery “overwritten.” (They will be wrong, but personal taste is a valid concern when choosing a book.) In addition to the narratives of George, Howard, and Howard’s father, the book often quotes from another (fictional) book, “The Reasonable Horologist,” a book George is very fond of.

Tinkers' syntax is complicated and the book jumps around in time so much that I often had to flip back a few pages to see if Harding was still writing about George or Howard or Howard’s father. In fact, if I have any complaint about this lovely book, it’s that I found the transitions a little less than smooth, but this book is so well written, I can forgive that and almost forget it.

While it’s a gorgeous book, Tinkers isn’t a book for everyone. (And what book is?) It’s a mosaic of thoughts, meditations, memories, and vignettes. As I stated at the beginning of this review, it might take more than one reading to understand how all the little pieces fit together, and it’s certainly going to take some thought. Each piece, however, is a precious gem, and the final mosaic is intensely blinding in its beauty. This is a book that's worth thinking about. This is a book that's worth reading two, three times, maybe more. Not many books are truly “life-altering.” Tinkers is.


Recommended: If you like meditations on the meaning of life, love, loss, memory, etc. and you love gorgeous prose, then this is certainly the book for you. (I would have given it a 5/5 had the transitions been just a little smoother.) If you demand a plotted novel or don’t like to think too much, Tinkers isn’t going to be your cup of tea.