Before Monday at 3:00 p.m. EST I had never heard of Tinkers (2009; Pulitzer), or Paul Harding. I must have seen the name before because the book got a small write-up in The New Yorker‘s Briefly Noted section, but it didn’t stick at all. Looking around the internet, I see I was not the only one thinking who? what? when the Pulitzer winner was announced. While it has been favorably reviewed in such places as The New Yorker, The Los Angeles Times, and The Boston Globe, Tinkers had been off the radar.
Tinkers is a first novel. It is published by Bellevue Literary Press which is only a few years old, and, according to the New York Times, the first small press to win the Pulitzer since 1981 when Louisianna State University published John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. Toole’s book, which I admired but didn’t really love, has so far stood the test of time and withstood the critical weight heaped upon it after it became instantly famous. I’m very interested to see how Tinkersfares under that weight. At times, while reading it, I thought it might break. The writing at times is a bit too perfect and elaborate (or so it seemed). Certainly there were times that the running and running sentences got in the way and the author sounded a bit too grandiloquent. I worried the words and sentences might be a facade for blase ideas. But, in the hours since finishing it — while I’ve been quite haunted by it, actually, listening to a clock tick — it has grown stronger and then stronger again.
In many ways, Tinkers is the quintessential Pulitzer novel. It takes account of an American past extending six generations. There are harsh, rugged New England winters in which the nature is described in poetry. The characters are impoverished yet proud because they work. The central theme is mortality with hints of transcendental spirituality.
When we start the novel, George Washington Crosby is lying in a rented hospital bed with eight days left to live. He’s already lived eight decades. In his last hallucinations, his house begins to crack and crumbles around him.
He had built the house himself — poured the foundation, raised the frame, joined the pipes, run the wires, plastered the walls, and painted the rooms. Lighting struck once when he was in the open foundation, soldering the last joint of the hot-water tank. It threw him to the opposite wall. He got up and finished the joint. Cracks in his plaster did not stay cracks; clogged pipes got routed; peeling clapboard got scraped and slathered with a new coat of paint.
It is beautiful and powerful to watch the whole world then start to crumble as he lies dying in his living room, “right where they put the dining room table, fitted with its two extra leaves for holiday dinners.” Over the next few pages I could feel the reverberations as the walls and ceiling heaved and cracked, until:
The roof collapsed, sending down a fresh avalanche of wood and nails, tarpaper and shingles and insulation. There was the sky, filled with flat-topped clouds, cruising like a fleet of anvils across the blue. George had the watery, raw feeling of being outdoors when you are sick. The clouds halted, paused for an instant, and plummeted onto his head.
The very blue of the sky followed, draining from the heights into that cluttered concrete socket. Next fell the stars, tinkling about him like the ornaments of heaven shaken loose. Finally, the black vastation itself came untacked and draped over the entire heap, covering George’s confused obliteration.
It was an exceptional beginning, original and full of feeling, and, it turns out, conveying so much of what the subsequent pages would explore. After the quake, the novel slows down a bit when George’s hallucinations take him into his past and he starts thinking about his father, Howard. Howard Aaron Crosby, the son of a preacher, was a tinker who drove a “chest of drawers mounted on two axles and wooden spoked wheels.” One of my favorite passages in the book is the one where Howard and his trade are introduced. Here is just a snapshot:
Spring and fall were his most prosperous times, fall because the backwoods people stocked up for the winter (he piled goods from the cart onto blazing maple leaves), spring because they had been out of supplies often for weeks before the roads were passable for his first rounds. Then they came to the wagon like sleepwalkers: bright-eyed and ravenous. Sometimes he came out of the woods with orders for coffins — a child, a wife wrapped in burlap and stiff in the woodshed.
George and Howard are the book’s central characters, and we continue to follow them through their lives. They both live many years, but they aren’t together for most of them due to an accident one Christmas dinner. Howard is epileptic. For years he and his wife had been able to keep his seizures from the children, but during that Christmas dinner he ended up nearly biting George’s finger off. This leads Howard to a different perspective of his marriage:
Howard had assumed that their silence over his fits, over everything, stood for his gratefulness to her and her loyalty to him. He had assumed their silence was one of kindness offered and accepted.
That is not the case. We know quite early on, then, that Howard ends up leaving his family.
George goes on to have a relatively happy life. In the early hallucinations, we get a fast-forwarded version. We learn that George likes clocks and learned to fix them. The tension Harding describes as George tightens the delicate springs in a clock is tangible. The ringing shattering if a spring snaps spilling tiny bits all over hearkens back to the shattering of the universe in the first pages. The shattering and coming together also connects to other images of mortality:
My goodness, I am made from planets and wood, diamonds and orange peels, now and then, here and there; the iron in my blood was once the blade of a Roman plow; peel back my scalp and you will see my cranium covered in the scrimshaw carved by an ancient sailor who never suspected he was whittling at my skull — no, my blood is a Roman plow, my bones are being etched by men with names that mean sea wrestler and ocean rider and the pictures they are making are pictures of northern stars at different seasons, and the man keeping my blood straight as it splits the soil is named Lucian and he will plant wheat, and I cannot concentrate on this apple, this apple, and the only thing common to all of this is that I feel sorrow so deep, it must be love, and they are upset because while they are carving and plowing they are troubled by visions of trying to pick apples from barrels.
Just as the character here links his physical body to the ancient past, this passage also links together several passages in the book that quickly zoom away from the subject, completely annihilating the subject in the process, to show a greater world and existence. This works in memory too. As time takes us away from the past and from the people in our past, they are, in a sense, annihilated and broken into bits and pieces until they are dust and become something else: “My memories of them are atmosphere.”
Amazingly, with passages such as this one — “Everything is made to perish; the wonder of anything at all is that it has not already done so.” — it’s a wonder that the book is still “life-affirming.” There is great reverence toward hard work, shown in the passages about the tinker and all of his customers, and in the passages where men work for hours on the intricacies of a clock. There is tenderness in the years, honor for passing through them. The final passage here is taken from the oft-quoted The Reasonable Horologist, by the Rev. Kenner Davenport, 1783. I think it shows the grandeur of the ideas in this book:
This cooperation, and each of these hundreds of thousands of seconds, may be heard at our leisure as the calming, reassuring tick-tocks of a winter’s night from the bracket clock on the mantel above the glowing fire. If we call roll through the years, Huygens, Graham, Harrison, Tompion, Debaufre, Mudge, LeRoy, Kendall, and, most recently, Mr. Arnold, we find a humble and motley, if determined and patient, parade of reasonable souls, all bent at their worktables, filing brass and calibrating gears and sketching ideas until their pencils dissolve into lead dust between their fingers, all to more perfectly transform and translate Universal Energy by perfecting the beat of the escape wheel.