Tinkers took the Pulitzer, and it’s easy to see what the committee liked about Paul Harding’s work. The language is exceptional, soaring at times not just to the poetic, but to poetry itself:
Wind combed through the fir trees around the rim of the pond like a rumor, like the murmur of old men muttering about the storm behind the mountain. The storm came up from behind the mountain, shrouding the peak. Lightning crawled down the mountain and drank at the water, lapped the shallows with electric tongues, stunning bolt-eyed frogs . . .
Tinkers’s opening sentence is a real grabber. It would take a rock heart to quit reading after this one:
George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.
The book takes its title, as you might suspect, from the occupations of dying George Crosby and his father, Norman. Norman is a prototypical historic tinker driving a wagonful of varied goods around his rural neighborhood, selling and repairing as he goes. George’s passion is clocks, and he spends his life in his workshop basement winding springs and wheels, trying to make machines mark time.
Harding skillfully and hauntingly interweaves the father-son stories, replete with intricate parallels and differences between their lives and temperaments, giving us a kind of exploration of their DNA as lived out in their separate worlds. We get a sketch also of a distant, ineffable grandfather. All three men are impaired in some way–Grandpa with some sort of dementia, Norman with epilepsy, George with perhaps petite-mal seizures not as severe as his father’s, seemingly undetectable to him or the family as medical events.
All this Harding interweaves with passage from an eighteenth century treatise on horology (clocks), which includes speculation on God and the time-space continuum. A lot of work for a small book (191 pages) to do, but it carries its load admirably. I find little to fault here, except perhaps excessive gymnastics with POV and first and third person shifts which were sometimes jarring, sometimes confusing, and often served little purpose I could detect. Still, carefully crafted as Tinkers is, admirable as the language is, I found it strangely unmoving. The book winds its way toward a carefully contrived conclusion that left me shrugging my shoulders.
Searching my mind to explain why such a well-written prize winner would leave me flat, my thoughts led inevitably to what my idol Faulkner did with a similar plot situation in As I Lay Dying. Or maybe it’s just me and temperamental bias against literary fiction sans juice, but Tinkers is pablum compared to As I Lay Dying’s Eggs Florentine. No matter how skillfully you prepare or adorn that pablum, its nature is still pablum, and I’ll pass, thank you very much.