Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Tinkers, by Paul Harding

This Pulitzer Prize-winning and brief novel is an unusual work. It is written in self-consciously poetic language, does not have a conventional plot, and opens by telling the reader that the protagonist--the elderly George Washington Crosby--is eight days from death. George is hallucinating and, as his mind roams, he remembers his childhood as the eldest child of a tinker--a man who drove a mule-powered wagon around rural New England selling various household necessities and fixing things for a penny or two. George's father Howard has seizures, which, in the 1920s, were seen as a sign of mental illness. When Howard becomes aware that his wife is planning to have him institutionalized, he leaves the family, breaking George's heart but leaving him a legacy of tinkering. After his retirement from teaching, George develops a passion for fixing and collecting old clocks.

The book becomes confusing when Harding switches to Howard's perspective. Are these memories, too, part of George's hallucination?  Or is Harding simply providing back story? And why are a few passages in first person, rather than the third person employed in most of the book? Howard's story does help the reader understand why he left his family without even confronting his wife about her plans--his own mother institutionalized his father, a Methodist minister, when his dementia reached the point that he told his parishioners that the devil might not be so bad.

Interspersed throughout the book are quoted passages from an old book about clocks, accentuating Harding's focus on time and its meaning. This device was not particularly effective when listening to the audio book--I wondered if it might be more effective in print. In fact, I wondered if there were typographical or layout clues in the print edition that might have alleviated my confusion about the shifting perspectives--the narrator, Christian Rummel, did little to make those shifts clear.

In perusing other reader reviews of the novel, I discovered that people seemed to either love or hate the book, with the poetic language being a key factor for both factions. I don't feel that strongly about the book either way. Many passages were quite lovely; on the other hand, the prose occasionally felt somewhat pretentious, and my confusion about the point of view interfered with my ability to enjoy the author's reflections on life, love, death, family, time, nature, and every damn thing.

Favorite passage:
. . . be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusions in your soul mean that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of this world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it. And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember: You will be dead and buried soon.

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