I do not think this post is completely spoiler-free and for that I half-apologize. As spoiler-frees are everywhere, I suggest goodreads.com or skip to the bottom where I linked another’s review. I do apologize for the length…have been trying to work out this book…but then, this is not a “review” but an abreaction, I think. (first and last asterisks sections if you’ve a mind, or short on time.)
Tinkers by Paul Harding.
Bellevue Literary Press, 2009.
First edition. 191 pages [185 pages of writing]. (hardcover)
I was pleasantly surprised to find Paul Harding’s Tinkers to be a small book, smaller dimensions, 185 pages dedicated to story, and four parts/chapters. I can read and digest a book of this size fairly reasonably. And I could. But what to do now after?
I took notes during Tinkers: words to look-up, quotes to rediscover, “thoughts.” After, I wrote nothing, just simmered. Then I reviewed notes, opened a Word document. I gave myself a day, or two. Contemplated Tinkers directly, then read some reviews, then decided to approach it more obliquely.
Why did I go through the trouble? It was that Tinkers won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. However, I didn’t read Paul Harding’s debut novel for that reason. The premise sounded interesting. And it still does.
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.
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 7 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 at once 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 the next. At once heartbreaking and life affirming, it is an elegiac meditation on love, loss, and the fierce beauty of nature. ~publisher’s comments.*
I was surprised to find that on goodreads.com Tinkers had only 3.35 rating, not nearly a half star rating. Many of the reviews posted, which I mostly skimmed, existed in an extreme. Either Tinkers changed their life!, marveling at Harding’s vision! or the person set it aside unfinished or suffered boredom into the final pages. There were a few at 3 stars, a few. I reside about the middle. I knew this much right away. But to articulate a response…
At 185 pages, the book is broken down into 4 parts (no “chapters”). The narrative is 3rd person omniscient, and the perspective moves primarily between two main characters George Washington Crosby and his father Howard Aaron Crosby. A third and brief point-of-view is given to George’s mother Kathleen.
The sections in rough summary:
1: (7-70) George’s condition/disintegration, intro to Howard. Alternating sections of their consciousness.
2: (71-126) a more usual narrative (with occasional George-italicized-interruption) about Howard and George. Introduces Kathleen as a 3rd person narrative.
3: (127-156) about Howard and his father with no interruption of George’s consciousness. Of course, Howard didn’t tell George about his father.
4: (157-191) a return to George, the countdown, and more on Howard after he left home.
At first I thought that the story was layered into George’s consciousness (whether lucid or no). Flipping back through marked quotes corrected this assumption, much to my relief as otherwise the story was not working for me (ie the whole of “3”). Page 21, “As he lay on his deathbed, George wanted to see his father again. He wanted to imagine his father. Each time he tried to concentrate and go back, tried to burrow deep and far away from the present, a pain, a noise, someone rolling him.” Page 11, a parallel cross-sectioning narrative begins for Howard, “Nearly seventy years before George died, his father, Howard Aaron Crosby, drove a wagon for his living.” Just the same, a layering still exists, George’s consciousness is added into Howard’s story in Chapter 2 with italicized inclusions (ie p 86); notably they do not interrupt Kathleen’s narrative.
For some reason that I have yet to figure out why George “wants to see his father again.” (Yet, who can question the rationality of the dying?) In reading, you come to find that Howard eventually ran away, and not without good reason. But that day, in George’s youth, is not the last he sees of Howard. Are we to infer at the end that George only saw Howard that once more, or rarely thereafter? And it seemed that hard-feelings had resolved with age and perspective. If the sense of resolving a relationship between estranged son and father was the effort of the plot (as wouldn’t be unusual) Tinkers fails. But is that what Tinkers is all about? George dying in peace, with a sense of a healed relationship with his father?
George is dying, rather painfully and certainly without much dignity. And while one might think there is never any real dignity in dying (ala House MD**) Tinkers argues against it (ala Howard Crosby). George’s consciousness is disintegrating. His body and mind are breaking down. Who he is and has been is revealed along the way. Where he is going is revealed as well in a series of musings about the collective memories we pass on as a legacy. George imagining each person as a tile, shifting and moving and creating spaces amongst direct relations and outwardly in the greater populace of the world and its history, present, future:
“Because that final finitude will itself be a bit of scrolling, a pearlescent clump of tiles, which will generally stay together but move about within another whole and be mingled with in endless ways of other people’s memories, so that I will remain a set of impressions porous and open to combination with all of the other vitreous squares floating about in whoever else’s frames, because there is always the space left in reserve for the rest of their own time, and to my great-grandchildren, with more space than tiles, I will be no more than the smoky arrangement of a set of rumors, and to their great-grandchildren I will be no more than a tint of some obscure color, and to their great grandchildren nothing they ever know about, and so what army of strangers and ghosts has shaped and colored me until back to Adam, until back […]. Personal mysteries, like where is my father, why can’t I stop all the moving and look out over the vast arrangements and find by the contours and colors and qualities of light where my father is, not to solve anything but just simply even to see it again one last time. (64-6).
As he considers his relationships with wife and children and grandchildren and his legacy, material and immaterial, George and the novel contemplate that which was left to him by his father and grandfather and beyond, both material and immaterial.
Unfortunately, George doesn’t have an easy grasp on reality or identity, perceived or otherwise.
George Crosby remembered many things as he died, but in an order he could not control. To look at his life, to take the stock he always imagined a man would at his end, was to witness a shifting mass, the tiles of a mosaic spinning, swirling, reportraying, always in recognizable swaths of color, familiar elements, molecular units, intimate currents, but also independent now of his will, showing him a different self every time he tried to make an assessment. (18)
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge*** sequence is interrogated, a query into how life might flash before one’s eyes is launched. Yet, when in our “lucid” states are our perceptions always realized (George replaying his recorded stories back to himself (23-4)?
George tinkers with clocks in his retirement. Tinkers uses this passion of George’s in imagery. I love this one: “When [George] imagined the inside the case of that clock, dark and dry and hollow, and the still pendulum hanging down its length, he felt the inside of his own chest and had a sudden panic that it, too, had wound down” (33-4). Tinkers also includes excerpts from “The Reasonable Horologist, by the Rev. Kenner Davenport, 1783;” which are interesting contemplations and may illuminate ideas influencing the rest of the text; otherwise they are merely strange and more of the rabbit-tracking vein oft taken in the novel. Of course George and his clocks and the discussion of time relate directly to death and its incessant if not irregular ticking, its nearness and distancing.
The narrative ever reminds the reader that George is steadily moving toward death and that he not only will die, but has died (how else is the hour known?). The novel itself appears like a tile (as George imagined) in a sense, passing amongst the consciousness of its readership, revealing layers, differing perspectives, histories, the people and ideas built into George, and potentially disseminated into the Reader’s (those that gave it 4 & 5 stars for content).
Tinkers is as much about Howard—so much time is spent with him. He is perhaps the most endearing and best developed character; almost as if the novel was constructed in such a way as to feature his interesting life; a retrospective. However, it is noted that if the Reader finds Howard’s musings and meetings aimless, extravagant, or yawning, Tinkers doesn’t work well; not for getting through, despite the few, small pages. Howard must be interesting enough to compel the reader onward through this trekking off here and there. The Reader must be patient enough with the character study as well as the cultural and medical one.
The medical conditions of characters compound and abound. They are primarily but are no means limited to mental and neurological. That the publisher Bellevue Literary Press is out of NYU School of Medicine is something to keep in mind. Harding has a way with the descriptors, his technical writing well versed, the experience was a fascination. Just the same, the Crosbys would fill up the medical history questionnaire at the doctor’s office. And Tinkers did read like a bit of medical history. In a questionnaire’s stead, there is a narrative.
In consideration of medical conditions are the accompanying cultural conditions. Their considerable influences as to cause, treatment, and prevailing attitudes concerns Tinkers and no doubt the medical communities. Yet Tinkers doesn’t move toward non-fictional stylings.
The key is to read Tinkers without an expectation that there is a point to what you are reading. Any overarching sense is collected in the periphery, despite the sometimes didactic ramblings or quaint anecdotes staring you right in the eye.
Where some would complain of a lack in plot or direction, no one seems to argue over the writing. Paul Harding has an MFA from Iowa’s Writers Workshop, he should have a notable level of skill. The Writing in Tinkers is quite wondermous. Harding transports the Reader. There are moments of ecstasy at the way he carries off a scene or realizes an idea into a concrete form. Remarkable. He also implements the long sentence and comma after comma that I adore, and he implements the parenthetical statement frequently (if not sometimes seemingly gratuitously). At a few rare points there is the awkward sentence: a long sentence with a long parenthetical bisecting it. The clunking lack of fluidity, which is hard to achieve with complex thought in complex sentences anyhow, is notable for all the skill otherwise employed. Also, I noted that anyone else would be criticized or have their papers marked for such sentences as Harding attempts and carries off. While you would want to hold up Tinkers as an example of excellent Writing, save the emulation for post school and keep to the independent presses.
There are no uses of quotation marks for dialogs for those who are troubled by their absences. Though Jesse Ball handles this better, Harding isn’t hard to follow. And it really is nice. Truly everything seems to conform to a singular consciousness, visually and as the novel progresses. 3 is a bit of an interruption, but there are threads and connections of value. In 4, George and Howard’s narratives rejoin in segues that create a finer seam with George in the present and Howard in the nearer present. Then the two intersect.
I am not sure about the ending. I was ready for Tinkers to end, so it wasn’t that. The counting down of the hours that George had left to live propelled the novel to a close. Was it an unexpected closure? or a strange intersection in which to leave the Reader? If the novel is about George finding his way toward his father Howard, the meeting was achieved. Was it supposed to be more meaningful or is the awkward the most realist portion of the read? What did the meeting satisfy—if anything? And why I was expecting greater clarity at the end, the answer to the cipher? I forget.
Approaching Tinkers as a novella in 4 parts helps the ending. Still, I wished for a better ending, a lingering affect. The redirection backward toward the content of the book is unfamiliar. The choice of redirection over cumulative statements or complex images weighted with carefully laid layers is–interesting. Maybe the statements and images were there and merely unavailable me. Or they occurred outside of the final meeting between father and son. Just prior, in an excerpt by The Reasonable Horologist,
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. (190)
Back to the tiles and the collective and the (super)naturally imprinted DNA. Returning to nature…?…
Nature, the landscape, is a character in the novel, one often portrayed as harsh and unyielding. But then, so are the people who populate the landscape, each effecting the other. How the human animal perceives and interacts with nature (as a part of nature) has a direct correlation to their culture, to their forebearers. We see a bit of whimsy and attachment in Howard and learn later that his lenses are inherited from his father. We see George’s connection through the excerpts read from the red book found in the attic (44-5), the Borealis entries sprinkled throughout.
George’s connection is more tenuous and I wonder if he is indicative of a generation removed from his Grandfather and missing the formative instruction of his traveling salesman father; raised primarily by his mother Kathleen. While we have the magical insightful beauty of the Borealis entries, we have the The Reasonable Horologist of which we also attach to George, “Like our greatest bards, those manly and sensitive souls who […] in short, find the music of sweetest verse, so too, our greatest clock men find that poetry resides in the human process of distilling civilization from riotous nature! Welcome, fellow, welcome!” (163).
Howard seems less interested in “distilling civilization.” Howard and Kathleen are too terribly alike in rebelling against the perceived “natural” order of things; though Howard does settle into respectable work (that he finds rewarding and enjoys)–as if that life rejected him?.
Other remarks on Nature:
1) to include Humans…
Howard wondered about a man who had never seen summer, a winter man, examining the weeds and making this inference—that he was looking at an ossuary. The man would take that as true and base his ideas of the world on that mistake. He would concoct narratives about when those thorny animals picked through the brush and fields, sketch outlandish guesses, publish papers, give talks in opulent rooms to serious men all wearing the same formal suits, draw conclusions, get it all wrong. Howard though, I do not even know if that is ragweed or Queen Anne’s lace. (117).
A none-too-subtle criticism of armchair or weekender Naturalism. A none-too-subtle inquiry of working off limited perspectives, of limited investigation. Not even a native, like Howard was completely sure he could identify the weed as “ragweed or Queen Anne’s lace.”
2) an observance by Howard:
The flowers were an act of resistance against the raw, bare lot with its raw house sticking up from the raw earth like an act of sheer, inevitable, necessary madness because human beings have to live somewhere and in something and here is just as outrageous as there because in either place (in any place) it seems like an interruption, an intrusion on something that, no matter how many times she read in her Bible, Let them have dominion, seemed marred, dispelled, vanquished once people arrived with their catastrophic voices and saws and plows and began to sing and hammer and carve and erect. So the flowers were maybe a balm or, if not a balm, some sort of gesture signifying the balm she would apply were it in her power to offer redress. (61)
A fascinating musing by a character later found to have sat still in an inlet into the night to observe nature as undisturbed as possible and remain physically changed from thereafter.
Howard saw no reason to doubt that his shadow dreamed just as he did for the reason that he could imagine himself to be a shadow of something—someone—else and that perhaps even his sleep, his dreams constituted his duty as a shadow of someone else and that perhaps while that someone else dreamed, he was free to live his waking life, so that this alternating, interdependent series of lives formed a sort of intaglio; the waking day of each shadow was the opposite side of its possessor’s sleep. (181-2)
Howard likes to think about things, and to imagine, and to see. Both he and George do…repetitive words “thought,” “imagined,” and “saw” without benefit of a thesaurus, or desire for one. There is no question Harding has a well-armed lexicon. So much of the narrative would be attributed to the mind of the character’s perspective, the author wants no mistake. What in Tinkers has been subjected to whimsy, or to lore (Gilbert, the veritable Rip Van Winkle friend of Nathaniel Hawthorne himself)? Howard can seem a bit like the father in the film, Big Fish****. And like Big Fish does that make the stories necessarily untrue or irrelevant? The inherited, inscribed, first edition Scarlet Letter weighs in on the scales. What of memory, if anything, is Real? Likewise, what is irrelevant?—extraneous.
How do others’ perspective play into Identity?
Howard thought, Is it not true: A move of the head, a step to the left or right, and we change from wise, decent, loyal people to conceited fools? Light changes, our eyes blink and see the world from the slightest difference of perspective and our place in it has changed infinitely: Sun catches cheap plate flaking—I am tinker; the moon is an egg glowing in its nest of leafless trees—I am a poet; a brochure for an asylum is on the dresser—I am an epileptic, insane; the house is behind me—I am a fugitive. His despair had not come from the fact that he was a fool; he knew he was a fool. His despair came from the fact that his wife saw him as a fool, as a useless tinker, a copier of bad verse from two-penny religious magazines, an epileptic, and could find no reason to turn her head and see him as something better. (124-5)
How Howard sees himself seems to remain unaffected, “he knew he was a fool.” It was how he was seen and subsequently treated, and only because the other wouldn’t bother an attempt for better lighting. Lovely.
Tinkers might take an overly compassionate view of its characters, but the attempt for better lighting is valuable. Humans are complex creatures, physically, spiritually, mentally, etc. There is wonder in human imaginings. There is wonderment in nature; the instructions on how to build a bird nest how a bird instills awe (169-71). Conversely, what is represented as unnatural is terrifying. George would have been less afraid of his father’s seizures if he had been educated about them(70). Kathleen is given little option for have less than maternal feelings for her children and is a bit scary herself (88-90).
Death seems to levitate between feelings of the natural/unnatural. The dead disappear, a spectre amongst the consciousness; in some cases their disintegration terrible before “going away.” And there was no hope to witness an end, only to look for them in the woods or in memory or in lore. Conversely, the Reader witnesses George’s disintegration and death, as does his family. It is quite moving. Tinkers would recover some of that fear and indignity of death; Howard striving to introduce an other opinion, other perspective, a fabulous imagination.
Tinkers is a strange experience and like most every review read to date, I can think to recommend it to particular people. It is as the publisher writes, “about the legacy of consciousness and the porousness of identity from one generation the next. At once heartbreaking and life affirming, it is an elegiac meditation on love, loss, and the fierce beauty of nature.” When expecting a meditation, the read does not disappoint. Use “Tinkers is about the legacy of consciousness and the porousness of identity from one generation the next.” as a guide and decide on the success of last for yourself, and let me know.
The Writing was deeply moving, Tinkers was less easily identifiable. At 185 pages, Tinkers won’t be the most wasteful afternoon spent this coming year and you’ve a 50/50 chance it will be “At once heartbreaking and life affirming.”
* I found the second paragraph of the publisher’s comments misleading having read Tinkers.
**House MD, television series on FOX.
***An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, short story by Ambrose Bierce, wiki.
****Big Fish (2003) dir. Tim Burton, IMDb.
the definition of tinkering.
the bluestocking society review, which I read and was reminded to request Tinkers from the Library.