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.


  1. I was going to have a punt on this and am now glad I didn’t. I’ve read far too many whelmed reviews of this of late and yours has put it firmly on the ‘meh’ list.

  2. Hm, I’ll wait and see a bit. The Nobel’s not a prize I follow and the description makes it sound like this isn’t the book to change my mind. Too persnickety.

    By the way John, perhaps it’s my browser but you seem to have lost your paragraph breaks in this post.

  3. It’s frustrating, isn’t it, to want to get back to the better sequences in a novel? I hadn’t heard of this book, but the whole prize thing is not really that interesting. I wonder how corrupt/political it is. I just finished reading a Simenon bio, and in one part, he’s asked to be a judge at Cannes, but he goes rogue and that’s the last time he’s asked to do that. Not that he cared.

  4. When I read this book I found myself at moments ellated by the prose and at moments quite weary. Strangely, the book has gotten both better in memory — I still like some of the conceits a lot, like the human body and the clock and time wound up into one entity — and worse, the tricksiness has stood out where the plot has not.

  5. I have similar issues with the Pulitzer — not so much with the years in which they choose the obvious, but when they opt to head off into other territory. As they did last year with Olive Kitteridge, good but not much more, and even more so with this book. I confess to an aversion to lyrical writing (so discount all that follows), but the reviews of this do make it seem like a book that was chosen by Creative Writing teachers. I will give it a pass and honor those who like these kind of novels and think that this is a good example — just goes to show that sometimes I am out of step with juries (see ManBooker 2009, Wolf Hall, for an even more obvious example — heck, that’s why there are juries). I do appreciate this review, Trevor’s and others, all of which have offered thoughtful and useful observations on a volume that I don’t think I will be reading.

    I certainly would have had In Other Rooms, Other Wonders well ahead of this one. For me too, it is one of the best reads of the last 12 months — and, alas, overlooked. I have reviewed it on my blog and will abuse the hospitality here to provide a link:

    A fine volume, if I do say so myself.

    1. Hi Kevin. Please keep in mind that according to the guidelines for the prize, the Pulitzer for fiction should “preferably deal with American life”. Tinkers matches that criterion while the Mueenuddin, although a great read, does not.

      1. I agree, Ellen — was surprised to see the Mueenuddin even mentioned in the runner-up spot, given the Pulitzer criteria. Its presence on the short list for the National Book Award was less surprising.

  6. hey john

    The writer William Gass wrote an article some years back in which he maintained that throughout its history the Pulitzer committee has almost always chosen the wrong book. Considering some of the books they passed on and those they rewarded, it’s hard to argue his point.

    I won’t go far as to say (as Kevin does) that I dislike “lyrical” writing. When lyrical is done right it’s terrific as in Edmund White’s “Nocturnes for the king of naples.” The problem is too many people attempt it and don’t get it right and the book under discussion here is another of that ilk. I started it but gave up after a while. Yes, parts of it were well written but for me it didn’t cohere enough. I will admit to being an inpatient reader, but it just didn’t work for me.

  7. Looks like Harding remembered that dictum from high school creative writing class: Add lots of detail. Just reading the examples you provided was exhausting; I felt I didn’t like the book–and I hadn’t even read it! Yeah, I think I’ll give this one a pass–life’s too short.

  8. I’m still somewhat confused as to why many people responded so strongly and angrily to “Tinkers” winning the Pulitzer. It certainly does not sound like a terrible book, and seems like it has merits (even if they are suited to a very, very specific taste). Sometimes I like to fall into such a clearly painted world, and though some of the passages here seem a little overdone, I do like some of the quotes…

  9. I think the reason people have taken against this book is that it overdoes the language factor. It gets comfortably into a superfluous, superficially satisfying mode. I read the first 40 or so pages earlier. Initially, I was enraptured by the magnificent use of language, beautifully used similes and so on but you cannot maintain that over 200 pages; it’s wearying and it’s entirely self-indulgent. That’s my guess. It’s a bit like Anne Michaels: it feels like a poet has been cajoled by their agent into writing a novel. Banville writes exquisite stuff but never overstays his welcome.

  10. Thanks for the comments everyone. I was away on hols this week and scheduled this post to appear in my absence. Unfortunately it looks as though the formatting got messed up. Will fix it asap.

  11. Sorry for the delay in responding to comments above; as indicated, I was away last week and have not had much free time since returning (the joys of parenthood).

    Lee, I’m not sure what the main problem with the book was, though it’s important to add that I didn’t regret reading it, and I can see that many people would like it. I am ever reluctant to use the phrase “style over substance”, because I tend to believe that style is an element of substance, but certainly the story, characters and themes didn’t stay in the mind as long as the ornate prose did.

    Guy, it’s now looking unlikely that I will review In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, simply through the time that has elapsed since I read it, and I have other more recent titles that I need to get around to reviewing (and which also may not make it). But Kevin covered it very effectively on his blog, and I recommend it – though I much preferred the earlier stories, and criticisms of similarities between the characters (especially the females) are not misplaced.

    John H and Guy, thanks for the comments re the whole jury process. I do recall Trevor mentioning that the judges do not always accept the recommendation of the Pulitzer committee. I am quite sure there are political and personal considerations in many juries’ deliberations. In Blake Bailey’s biography of John Cheever, he relates how one jury award ended up being settled partially on the issue of Saul Bellow having once stepped in Ralph Ellison’s dog’s shit (or was it the other way around?).

    1. You’re right that the overall Pulitzer judges don’t always accept the fiction jury’s recommendation. That’s what happened when Norman Mailer won for The Executioner’s Song. The fiction jury had actually recommended Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, which I wish had won. Interestingly, in some years, the arch-committee not only disregards the fiction jury’s recommendation, but goes so far as to not award any book the Pulitzer. That’s what happened in 1974 when the fiction jury recommended Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Then, just a few years later, there is another blank year when the fiction jury recommended Norman McLean’s A River Runs Through It. The dismissal of the fiction jury and of all fiction of the year hasn’t happened since then.

      1. That’s interesting about the Pulitzer history Trevor. It’s actually quite radical to have an award where the jury / committee recommendation is ignored to the point of no award being made. Hard to imagine a Booker jury showing up at the Guildhall and announcing “sorry, none of this lot are up to the mark, let’s keep our fingers crossed for next year.”

      2. Fascinating fact, I had no idea about that at all. The idea that a jury would avoid The Ghost Writer in preference to The Executioner’s Song (which I did enjoy) is a joke for many reasons. And leaving a blank year minus any recipient seems rather lofty and pointlessly curmudgeonly. Having said that, I do think a jury should have the opportunity to bring in a book not put up for deliberation, but that’s another story.

  12. I found the poetic writing refreshing. So much more to experience. So little work these days is written with grace and complexity.

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