Why did I buy this book knowing nothing about it? Was it the expansive whiteout of the jacket design that seemed to enfold me? The mysterious gold foil of the Pulitzer seal (mysterious because who the hell is Paul Harding?) Or my former manager who said this book is brilliant? Granted, he says that about 60% of the novels he reads, but since I’m not often disappointed by his recommendations I’ll say he simply chooses his books well.
Tinkers is a dying man’s retrospective that also encompasses the life of his enigmatic father. Time is completely unstuck in this novel as it meanders to and from Howard, the elder, and George the younger. Howard was a tinker who drove a donkey cart full of knick-knacks to sell to all the unhappy farmers scraping by in rural New England. His family situation was eventually complicated by his frequent epileptic fits, and one night instead of coming home, he drove his cart on. His son George (who creates an imbalance in this book by being not nearly as interesting) grew up to fix clocks. It’s hard to say what Tinkers is about, unless I say there is this scrim running alongside Howard’s and George’s lives with the Sublime existing just on the other side of it.
They both get tantalizing glimpses of the unknown, whether it’s during a brush with death or a meditative sojourn to a snow-covered field. It’s in describing these moments where Harding shows how damn talented he is.
“I am not very many years old, but I am a century wide.”
Everyone wants to escape, everyone wants to break out of this encapsulated existence. Everyone feels small. Not important enough, in Howard’s case, to deserve such special suffering as the cosmically-described seizures that wrack him. And why shouldn’t they feel small? They just eke out their drab existence in frostbitten mornings and meager meals in a Podunk province of the Northeastern US.
This is probably why I had little interest in George and Howard, at least up until their relentless grappling for the unknown finally gripped my sympathy. I initially found the book preoccupied with death, as it seemed to lack any other subject in these characters’ lives to merit contemplation.
Surprisingly, the most tragic fate belongs to Howard’s own father, a priest who, eerily, doesn’t die so much as fade away. Gradually losing the reverence of his congregation and family, he vanishes like an imaginary figure whose inventors cease to believe in him.
Allusory Fun Fact: Harding apparently fills this thing with nods to Faulkner, which I would probably recognize had I read more than one Faulkner. For now all I got is “Addie Budden.”
Some of the lyricism is too elevated, too determined to bring earth-shaking profundity to what happens in this book: “The actual seizure was when the bolt touched flesh, and in an instant so atomic, so nearly immaterial, nearly incorporeal, that there was almost no before and after…” (although maybe having an epileptic fit is like “tasting the raw stuff of the cosmos,” I don’t know.) When it’s legitimate, though, it’s… well, Wow.
He lifted his nose from a crate of limes, refreshed and eager to get home to a wife who spoke words out loud as she thought them up and held nothing to whirl and eddy and collect in brackish silences, silences that broke like thin ice beneath you to announce your drowning.
I may well remember Tinkers as a series of awe-striking moments interrupted by stretches of I Don’t Care (e.g. apocryphal descriptions of clockmaking). Still, it was more or less what expected: a small book that looms large, and stretches farther than you can see.