Tinkers, the winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is by Paul Harding — yet another member of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, along with Marilynne Robinson, Ann Patchett, Elizabeth McCracken, Edward Carey, and many more interesting current American writers.
The novel opens with the looming death of George Crosby, and for the rest of the book I felt immersed in a dreamlike wandering between the present day, George’s life and that of his father Howard — a half world paralleling George’s hallucinatory state in the days before his death.
Tinkers is a world of the senses, where the instincts and emotions are more real than the surface life of intellectual or practical decisions and actions. Dialogue is mixed with characters’ thoughts, though the stories are narrated, too, albeit in fragments: we hear about the lives of George, Howard and even Howard’s father. George has been a teacher, a guidance counsellor and, in retirement, a repairer of old clocks. His father, Howard, was a tinker and an epileptic in the time before epilepsy was understood or treated. Howard’s father was a minister who wrote sermons but was removed from his position when his sermons became incoherent.
Harding’s use of language is an eye-opening delight. He moves seamlessly between brief snapshots of a family scene, detailed lists, and the dream worlds of George’s last weeks and his father’s pre-seizure hallucinations.
The attitudes of people in the anticipation of a death are conveyed with economical but convincing detail. George’s sister, Marjorie, doesn’t edit her thoughts:
Why hasn’t anybody shaved Georgie? Who is going to shave Georgie? It’s terrible. Georgie looks awful. My God, he looks terrible.
One of his grandsons, Samuel, said, Oh, Aunt Margie, you are right; we need to get this old goat looking presentable. I’ll shave him. Say your prayers, Gramp, and keep still. He wanted to choke his great-aunt until she died and then smoke all of her cigarettes.
While Sam is shaving George:
Marjorie said, Don’t cut him.
George’s daughters grimaced. Betsy, Sam’s mother, said, Be careful, and bared her teeth at Sam to express peril and worry and support.
The periods just before Howard’s seizures are marked by a deep identification with the natural world and a hypersensitivity to it. In one of them, he wanders in “a fugue state,” making a weave of grass and flowers that he holds up to the sun, searching for some sign. I loved the description of this pre-seizure state:
Howard shivered, suddenly cold. Summer would anneal the chilled earth, but for now the water was so mineral and hard that it seemed to ring. Howard heard the water reverberating through the soil and around the roots. Water lay ankle-deep amid the grass. Puddles wobbled and shimmered and they looked like tin cymbals. They looked as if they would ring if tapped with a stick. The puddles rang. The water rang. Howard dropped his tapestry of grass and flowers. The buzzing bees joined into one ringing chord that pulsed. The field rang and spun.
One of the many lists in the book is that of the things Howard does:
Besides fixing pots and selling soap, these are some of the things that Howard did at one time or another on his rounds, sometimes to earn money, mostly not: shoot a rabid dog, deliver a baby, put out a fire, pull a rotten tooth, cut a man’s hair, sell five gallons of homemade whiskey for a backwoods bootlegger named Potts, fish a drowned child from a creek.
The sequence about pulling a rotten tooth might be my favourite part of the book. The tooth belongs to a hermit named Gilbert, who is reputed to be a a classmate of Nathaniel Hawthorne:
Howard could not imagine that this old husk of a man, this recluse who seemed not much more than a sour hank of hair and rags, had a tooth left in his head to ache. Nevertheless, it was true. Stepping closer, Gilbert opened his mouth and Howard, squinting to get a good look, saw in that dank, ruined purple cavern, stuck way in the back of an otherwise-empty levy of gums, a single black tooth planted in a swollen and bright red throne of flesh. A breeze caught the hermit’s breath and Howard gasped and saw visions of slaughter-houses and dead pets under porches.
Some complications I could have done without
- the descriptions of clock lore from the Reverend Kenner Davenport that appear throughout
- the extracts from the handwritten book (Tempest Borealis, Crepuscule Borealis, etc.)
Both are beautifully written but add unnecessary complexity to the novel and disrupt the flow. Even if you can just let the words wash over you and get yourself into your own “fugue state” while reading Tinkers, you may find that the second half drags because it simply has too much in it. But, with that caveat, I’d recommend it to any lover of language.