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Book review: “Tinkers” by Paul Harding

As “Tinkers” opens, George is dying. Paul Harding makes this clear with his first sentence: “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.”

By the end of this short, intense, sharply observed novel, Harding’s vision is more evident.

As Harding sees life, the characters in every novel are dying from the opening sentence. Ahab is dying. Sister Carrie. Madame Bovary. David Copperfield. Lolita. Olive Kitteridge. Rabbit. Augie March.

And so, too, in every biography and memoir, every history. Lincoln, Bill Clinton, Cleopatra, Jane Addams, Elizabeth II, Victor Hugo, Shakespeare, Madonna, Goethe, Florence Nightingale — all of them, even as they live, are dying. Even as they lived.

“Tinkers,” which won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is a novel about the intertwining of life and death. About the journey of life toward death. About their inseparability.

Midway through the book, a young George is crouching in a storage shed while his father looks on, thinking:

So there is my son, already fading. The thought frightened him. The thought frightened because as soon as it came to him, he knew that it was true. He understood suddenly that even though his son knelt in front of him, familiar, mundane, he was already fading away, receding.

In its 191 pages, the novel focuses tightly on George and Howard.

Born in the late 1800s, Howard is a tinker, an itinerant drummer who takes his wagon to back-road cabins to sell mops and other supplies to isolated farm women and makes occasional repairs.

George is a retired engineer and high school guidance counselor who, as a deep-felt sideline, fixed clocks for thirty years. Self-taught, he tinkered with the mechanisms, got them running, collected some, sold some.

One hundred and thirty-two hours before his death, he awakes in the night in his hospital bed in his living room with a grandson sitting attendance and wonders at the empty quiet.

Awful damn quiet.

His mind struggles this way and that to understand, and then, finally, he notices the grandfather clock.

That was it, he realized; the clock had run down. All the clocks in the room had wound down — the tambours and carriage clocks on the mantel, the banjo and mirror and Viennese regulator on the walls, the Chelsea ship’s bells on the rolltop desk, the ogee on the end table, and the seven-foot walnut-cased Stevenson grandfather’s clock, made in Notingham in 1801, with its moon-phase window on the dial and pair of robins threading flowery buntings around the Roman numerals.

The ticking of George’s clocks — rooted in time, always winding down — have a reverse-image parallel in Howard whose body is ever ticking with the possibility of an epileptic fit.

While his fits are violent and painful, physically and psychically, Howard comes to see them as a mechanism in which he transcends time.

There was the door, or maybe the doors, or maybe not even doors, just the curtains and murals of this world and the star-gushing universe was usually obscured by them — the curtains and the murals — and Howard, by accident of birth, tasted the raw stuff of the cosmos. Other, larger inhuman souls might very well thrive on such a feast. Howard thought angels, but the image he had of the seraphim, with their long blond curls and flowing white robes and golden halos, did not fit with the more frightening, dark, powerful species he conjured, which would gorge on and delight in what, when ingested by him, instead of sating, instantly burst the seams of his thin body. The aura, the sparkle and tingle of an oncoming fit, was not the lightning — it was the cooked air that the lightning pushed in front of itself.

As those three powerful, electric sentences show, Harding is a poet of sharp insight and high skill.

As a poet, Harding tinkers with words. He has envisioned George and Howard — underneath their day-to-day occupations — as being poets as well. Poets whose words aren’t meant for academic journals, or anyone else at all. But poets who write their poetry in an effort to come themselves to some understanding of the journey of life and its meaning.

This is a journey taken alone.

Howard and George are connected with fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, wives, children, grandchildren. They love.

But the strongest connection each has — the strongest connection a human being has, Harding seems to be saying — is internal.

It’s found in that internal dialogue in which a person synthesizes experience, feeling, thought and — what? — hope, maybe. Or curiosity. Wonder?

One of George’s private prose-poems pictures he and his father, or maybe he and all people, as comets:

We entered the atmosphere at dusk. We trailed a wake of fire. We were a sparkling trail of white fire hurtling over herds that grazed alluvial plains. The purple plains: steppe and table, clastic rocks from an extinct river strewn over the bed of an extinct ocean. Perhaps, far away, there was a revolution — a storming of a bereft fort built on the bend of a remote, misty, woods-shrouded river. But here only heavy-coated caribou lifted their shagged heads, their velvet antlers, not even stopping their chewing while our silent blazing passed across the cold sky, followed by their wet black eyes, but only because that is the nature of eyes and of light. Winds swept over the plains. We never saw the caribou or the revolution. We were a burning fuse. We barely caught a glimpse of the darkening world below us before we burned away to nothing.

The journey of life.

Patrick T. Reardon

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