Book Review: Tinkers by Paul Harding

Tinkers by Paul HardingA Guest Post by Bryan Marshall

If you’re looking for a rattle of a read, filled with explosive plot twists, then, dear reader, pass by.  If, on the other hand, you feel you might appreciate a superbly-crafted, delicately-whispered rumination on what the final week of a clock repairman in Maine might feel like, with its half-memories and cloud-fogged hallucinations, then you may want to stay a while.   

The manuscript of Paul Harding’s debut novel, Tinkers, was rejected by numerous agents before languishing in a drawer for three years, until finally being picked up for publication in 2009.  It is just shy of 200 pages long, but packs a firm, if quiet, punch.  So much so that it went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.

I found the surge of images that pushes the book forwards compelling, and it was difficult not to read straight through in one delicious sitting.  There is essentially no plot – the action, such as it is, focuses on the lives and deaths of three generations of men in the Crosby family – George (the afore-mentioned clock repairman), his father (who was a tinker), and his grandfather (a preacher). We encounter George as he lies in a rented hospital bed in his living room, remembering (and misremembering) his childhood, and recalling the stories of his father and grandfather.

Harding is particularly successful in capturing the mental breakdowns of these men, describing the terrifying and yet seemingly ordinary events that led to the disappearance of George’s father and grandfather from Crosby family history:

“It seemed to me as if my father simply faded away.  He became more and more difficult to see.  One day, I thought he was sitting in his chair at his desk, writing.  To all appearances, he scribbled at a sheet of paper.  When I asked him where the bag for apple picking was, he disappeared.  I could not tell whether he had been there in the first place or if I had asked my question to some lingering afterimage.”

The writing is poetic in its density, with a timescale that is intentionally disorientating and dialogue that is rarely punctuated. The result is a jumble of vignettes that gradually reveal events, without always explaining exactly what has happened.  Some readers may find this to-ing and fro-ing irksome, but the individual scenes are acutely observed.

The book is saturated with melancholy, with the forlorn wanderings of minds ringing with grief, though Harding’s precise accounts never resort to mawkishness. The prose is peppered with images of stillness – detailed tableaux, giving the characters and the reader time to revel in the moment:

“How can I not wonder what it would be like to sit in that cold silver water, that cold stone water up to my chin, the tangled marsh grass at the level of my eyes, sit in the still water, in the still air, bright day behind me lighting the face of everything under the dark millstone cloud lid in front of me, watching the storm coming from the north?”

With its intertwining histories, minimal cast of characters and crisply-observed snapshots of lives lived in all their tumbled messiness, Tinkers is a book that manages to be both profoundly confusing and intensely revelatory at the same time.  From the final pages:

“When it came time to die, we knew and went to deep yards where we lay down and our bones turned to brass.  We were picked over.  We were used to fix broken clocks, music boxes; our pelvises were fitted onto pinions, our spines soldered into vast works.  Our ribs were fitted as gear teeth and tapped and clicked like tusks.  This is how, finally, we were joined.”

Tinkers by Paul Harding is published by Bellevue Literary Press

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