The Reading Room: Tinkering with Time
By Miranda Marraccini '12, Staff Writer
During his visit to the College last month, Paul Harding described his intention in composing “Tinkers”: “I wanted to write with maximum intensity,” he explained of the slim novel. “It’s 192-page long, but I wanted it to be 1200-page deep.” That he succeeded in this effort has been pretty well confirmed, not in the least because “Tinkers” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for 2010.

It is, more than anything, a book of great depth. Its plot is spare and unusually easy to summarize, at least three-fifths of it captured in the remarkable first sentence, “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.” George is dying in his living room in a rented hospital bed, and as his loving family reaches out to him over the widening gap between him and the living world to which they belong, he remembers his life. His memories whirl and eddy around him like snow, mingling with the story of his father, Howard, an epileptic backwoods tinker and peddler who sold soap and tools to the isolated inhabitants of rural northern Maine.

George has also spent much of his life repairing clocks, an occupation with the potential, the author admits, to devolve into tired metaphors about the steady winding down of a man’s life. But Harding handles the horological details with aplomb, folding in ebullient, parodic passages from a fictional 18th century clockmaker’s handbook that lighten the heaviness of George’s grim childhood and death-vigil.

In fact, “Tinkers” is an exercise in fictional variety and dexterity. Harding shifts seamlessly from third person to first, from spoken dialogue to inner monologue, from the Maine woods to a suburban living room, without breath or warning. This results in occasional confusion, but usually results in a dreamlike state in which different realities float in and out of our consciousness, at times in repeating patterns, at times inexplicably.

All of this sounds very abstract, and it is, but “Tinkers” is an adamantly physical book. It’s a book of unrelenting snow, of frozen wood piles and oppressive, gorgeous wilderness. This book will make you feel cold. It abounds in descriptions as restrained and lyrical as: “There was an early January thaw and it had been raining all day, but just before sunset the storm clouds passed and it rained only in the trees. Steam lifted off the snow. Trees stood half in life, half in shadow as the sun lowered and striped the world in a weave half of itself, half of the approaching evening.”

Often Harding’s characters indulge in these poetic ruminations, and occasionally they stretch a bit too far beyond the characters’ consciousness, so that the author is too visible behind the characters’ thoughts, speaking through their lips. When Howard’s wife Katherine, who is so exhausted by his epilepsy that she decides that she must institutionalize him, compares the “bare arterial branches” of the sunset trees to “a netting of black vessels around brains of made of light,” the words do not seem her own. Harding’s characters are aware of their own poetry, resulting in a kind of deep New England spirituality that can seem overworked, too beautifully reasoned. Harding has called himself a “birch-bark metaphysician,” and his presence is continuously evident.

But these are minor flaws, byproducts of the incredible intensity with which Harding writes. “Tinkers” is truly a substantial book, though a quiet one (and quietly published by a small press). It expands outward from its frozen center, crystalline and absorbing.

Issue 17, Submitted 2011-03-02 01:01:35