Tinkers, by Paul Harding
In the novels I love most, the story is ultimately about time. The span of a life. The meaning of childhood and youth. Stories, like life, are anchored in the temporal, though unlike life, novels enable us the entire span, beginning, middle, and end. In novels, like life, time is finite, we want to savor every page. When I’m reading a novel and this happens, I tend to slow down, allow myself only a few pages at a time.
Paul Harding’s Tinkers, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010, tells of George Washington Crosby, mechanical draftsman by trade but whose real love, appropriately, is clocks. The novel charts George’s final eight days in a hospital bed in his living room. The bed is like a ship, anchored in memory. And while relations come to pay their respects, showing us the caliber of relationships, good and bad, close and distant, the real action is in George’s head. At this point in George’s life, “hallucinations” have overtaken reality and drawn a barrier, separating him from the events of the life stream around him, while bringing back keen memories. And those memories center on his father, who was a tinker, that now vanished occupation of mending metalware, usually on a traveling basis.
Here’s George remembering:
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.
In what would otherwise be a prosaic patch of exposition, Harding takes prose to a different place. The job description of a tinker becomes lovely, a passage you want to linger over. The “quicksilver patchwork,” the “tinkle of tin.” Harding is a writer who on a fundamental level understands sensory detail. And as a result, he shows us not only the visually decisive “pot hammered flat,” but also the more nuanced sound of the tinker’s work, “sibilant, tiny beneath the lid of boreal forest.” And while the sensory detail of this passage, with its effortless construction, could alone justify praise, the language, even in these quick lines, has a unified conceptual design. In the image of a tinker’s work sounding through the snowy woods, what other term could there be upon the forest but a lid? We’re given the experience in two clauses of less than twenty words and yet there is sound, image, and the tremendous scale of a small act and its small sound lodged in a great natural space. “We are beings who experience our selves in time and space, through our senses,” Harding has said, a quality his superlative prose more than demonstrates.
Harding, who grew up “knocking around the woods” in Essex County, Massachusetts, started out as the drummer for the band Cold Water Flat, whose style has been described as part of the “Nirvana-fueled hype machine of the early ‘90s.” The band would release two LPs, and tour in the US and Europe. Meanwhile, Harding, as a student at UMass Amherst, would change paths after reading Carlos Fuentes’ Terra Nostra. Soon after, he entered the Iowa Writers Workshop, studying with Marilynne Robinson. Like Robinson, Harding is a writer whose work is influenced by theology, a direction that informs the prose of both in an elegant austerity and focus on the transcendent.
Tinkers, both in form and content, centers on this meditation of the transcendent. George in his final days encounters a reckoning, a pure recollection of what has stayed with and imprinted him in life. The clock ticks, the pages turn, the story proceeds. Though reading Harding’s prose, you might wish the story would never end.
Read 5 Writing Tips from Paul Harding at Publishers Weekly.