July 15, 2010
Paul Harding: Tinkers
The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is one of those awards that I follow but don’t often take heed of. For most of the Pulitzer winners I’ve read (such as Updike’s last two Rabbits, Eugenides’ Middlesex, Ford’s Independence Day), they’re books I would have read anyway. Those examples make me forever think that the Pulitzer is an award favouring big books, so this year’s winner is a double surprise: not just a debut novel, but a 185-page debut. (It won against Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, one of the best books I’ve read this year, so expectations were high.) I bought the US edition, but it was picked up in an expensive bidding round by Heinemann in the UK, and has just been published here.
In the end I don’t regret reading it, but only because it was so short. Tinkers is a story of a father and son, Howard and George Crosby, written largely in flashbacks as the son George, now in his old age, dies. The UK edition shows a clock on the cover, because George is a clockmender, refining his father Howard’s own interests:
He tinkered. Tin pots, wrought iron. Solder melted and cupped in a clay dam. Quicksilver patchwork. Occasionally, a pot hammered back flat, the tinkle of tin sibilant, tiny beneath the lid of the boreal forest. Tinkerbird, coppersmith, but mostly a brush and mop drummer.
That passage is a pretty good indication of what to expect from Tinkers. A love affair with language, almost onomatopoeic at times; words to be rolled on the tongue and read aloud. Sometimes Harding gets it exquisitely right, as when a boy is cremating a dead mouse and the kerosene catches “and the bier was gulped in flame” – gulped perfectly evoking both ‘engulfed’ and the sense of the flame swallowing the body. Other times, he overdoes it, as in this passage describing a boy floating leaves and tree bark down the river:
Let those grassy crafts be listed alongside the iron hulls that cleave the sea, for they are all improvisations built from the daydreams of men, and all will perish, whether from ocean siege or October breeze.
He also has an addiction to lists. On one page alone we get:
- “odd planks and hoops and handles and blades of wood and iron”
- “each artefact having split or worn out or dulled to the very end of its usefulness”
- “so that not even Ray’s father … could nail it, tie it, or hammer it back into place”
- “The curing shed was where he and Ray Morrell went and smoked and played cribbage and told stories and jokes”
- “milking the cow or sweeping the yard or, most often, unyoking and feeding and inspecting Ray’s father’s giant oxen.”
It’s a stylistic choice that Harding has consciously made, but it sometimes sounds more like a nervous tic, and it generally enhances the feeling that he’s a man who never turned down the opportunity to add another adjective. It also suggests that this is a book which will be welcomed by those who love lyrical prose – the more the merrier – and treated with some suspicion by those who think a little of that sort of thing goes a long way.
Nonetheless, the fine writing does make some of the scenes vivid and memorable, such as when a grandson shaves the dying George, or when Howard extracts another man’s tooth (sorry, extracts “a single black tooth planted in a swollen and bright red throne of flesh”). To me, however, the strongest scenes were the ones set in the present, around George’s death, and I found myself kicking my heels in frustration to get back there as the story went further and further into the past (with part two covering George’s childhood with Howard, and part three Howard’s youth and his relationship with his own father).
In Tinkers, the human body is an intricate machine like a clock, with parts that go wrong (as in Howard’s epilepsy, which made “his head feel like a glass jar full of old keys and rusty screws”, and made his children think, “Daddy’s broken!”), which needs careful maintenance, and eventually fails.
The forest had nearly wicked from me that tiny germ of heat allotted to each person and I realised then how slight, how fragile it was, how it almost could not even properly be called heat, as its amount was so small and whatever its source so slight, and how it was just like my father disappearing or the house, when seen from the water, flickering and blinking out.
The characters of George, Howard and their family are secondary to the descriptions of their activities and the places where they live. That makes it a surprise to have a scene near the end featuring George the clockmender at work, which shows him cynical (“This is the thing to get into, boy. I tell you, this is how you can make some bucks”), and ripping off his customers either directly (in the only scene we see) or implicitly (when we learn that his prices “always seemed to surprise, if not actually anger” his clients). This adds a frisson to an otherwise rather too well-behaved novel, a book to divert but not necessarily to detain.