Reviews: ‘Tinkers’ by Paul Harding

This book won the Pulitzer this year but is still under the radar because not many people have heard of it and it’s on the lower tier of the New York Times Review. It sounds like “OUR” kind of book though so we looked forward to this read!

Review by Peter Bartels

Paul Harding’s “Tinkers” is a short book. At 190 pages, it seems innocent enough, comfortably digestible. This notion is quickly cast aside, though, as Harding’s linguistic and thematic depth swallow you whole and you find yourself glowingly reading passages aloud to anyone who will listen. Harding’s debut novel is a celebration of language and an invigorating exploration of human consciousness. Full of soulful, sensory truth, every page of this thin but dense novel offers a multitude of pocketable quotes: worthy not only for their wisdom, but also for the pure, aural pleasure of repeating them aloud.

Above all else, Harding is a master of description, and he offers scenes that vibrate with color, texture and emotion. A father, hidden in the woods, watches his son build a floating funeral pyre for a mouse. A grandson shaves an old man hours before his death. A minister slowly loses his hold on life and fades away into the world around him. A man fiddles with the gears and springs of a clock, recounts his life into a tape recorder, and feels the wheels propelling his own life as they begin to grate and shudder. Again and again, Harding paints flowing, alliterative pictures of what it means to grab hold of life. From beginning to end, “Tinkers” is nothing if not poetic.

Published by Bellevue Literary Press, a company with only 21 titles to its name, the author’s debut novel roared from the corners of obscurity with its rich and emotional language to claim the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. For its fulcrum the story introduces a man, George Washington Crosby, who lies on his deathbed. He is the son of a peddler who is the son of a minister. All come from the poverty of rural New England, and the story sets down now and again at different points in each man’s life. As a novel, “Tinkers” is a cohesion of narrative, description, exposition, and rumination that spans time and tense and point of view. For the most part, the story follows George, his father, and his grandfather, but along the way manages to fit in much more, side-stepping regularly for moments of vivid scenery and deep introspection. Among Harding’s most notable departures are dramatic descriptions of the New England wilderness, a step by step explanation of how to best build a bird’s nest, lessons on the history and specifics of horology (George repairs clocks), and an especially striking exploration of the otherworldly sensation of seizures.

In exploring the beauty of the physical world and the human soul, Harding’s wisdom is one that conveys a sense of both giddy, mystic wonder and deep-seated despair. His words fuse the boundaries of life and death, man and nature, reality and consciousness. The trio of protagonists present a generational progression of broken men, victims—as we all one day will be—of the betrayal of their own bodies and minds. It is a reminder that life is a time of love and pain, beauty and hardship, and that in the end, everything is finite. Though the dimensions of this book are small, its scope is anything but. Harding uses death as a meditation on life, and in so doing approaches those truths that flicker deep within each of us: those pieces of our own reality that would blind us if ever they were brought to the surface.

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