Paul Harding: Tinkers

Harding, Paul (2009), Tinkers, Bellevue Literary Press
ISBN 978-1-934137-12-3

Published in 2009 by the tiny Bellevue Literary Press, a press run by the NY School of medicine, Paul Harding’s debut novel Tinkers was undoubtedly the major surprise of this year’s literary awards when it first won the 2010 Pulitzer, out of the blue, one might say, and garnered its author a Guggenheim fellowship later on. Harding, an Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate, and a creative writing teacher at Harvard, has been inundated with praise ever since. After reading Tinkers, one can’t help but feel that part of that praise is not caused by the book’s brilliance but by professional critics’ guilt at overlooking this book, and at their delight at the narrative that its author’s rags-to-riches story lends to their pages and reviews. It seems fashionable to praise Harding, and the excessive praise seems a bit undeserved, which is regrettable inasmuch as Tinkers is a truly remarkable book, and its quiet qualities have been swamped a bit in the shouty acclaims of brilliance. To be honest, I felt a stab of disappointment a few pages in: I hoped that ‘small press’ and ‘lots of rejections’ pointed to an original, unusual, maybe even difficult book, but it’s none of these. What it is is a very competently written, very sentimental, very moving little book about a family history, a book about father-son relationships, about the mechanics of modernity and about the shock of spiritual enlightenment. It is a book that seems to appeal to everyone, from pensive teenagers to mellow grandparents. There is just the right note of formal rigorousness and theological thoughtfulness to keep it from becoming completely trite and banal. Tinkers, it must be said, is just an enormously likeable little book, tinged with melancholy and its heart in the right place. That’s all it is, but isn’t that enough, sometimes?

Harding’s novel is, one might say, nicely old-fashioned. With much skill and effort, he created an ars moriendi that could well have been written a few decades ago. There isn’t even a hint of self-conscious deliberation, of careful irony, and maybe that is one of the reasons for its broad appeal. Tinkers tells us of a family history with a melancholy seriousness, with Harding never once wavering from his project, never attempting to include the unsavory or the difficult. This is not to say that Harding’s literary skills are lacking. In fact, structurally and stylistically, there is much that is remarkable here, and much to suggest that he may be a better writer than Tinkers makes him out to be. The book may be sentimentally and morally straightforward, but Harding’s accomplished writing has led him to tell his story in a more fractured way, skillfully weaving three generations’ memories into a tapestry of personal histories. It’s very rare that you find books like this one, books that manage to employ the tools of modernist and postmodernist fiction with great expertise, but that are at the same time very easy to read and understand. In this you can see Harding’s profession and his educational history. Tinkers is always, above all, deliberate and effective, a realization which can cool down considerably the soft emotional warmth that Harding tries to evoke. One would think that a book which its author had spend years working on in his spare time, which he had been defending against a spate of rejections, that such a book would feel more necessary, more incisive, more interesting, but it merely feels cute and cozy and comfortable. So, yes, Tinkers is a sad feel-good book, the likes of which regularly make the reading group circuit (Kathryn Stockett’s The Help is a recent example). But on the other hand, potentially, Paul Harding is a better writer than that, and a more educated reader.

This is important: Paul Harding is less of a storyteller, less of an observer or thinker, and more of a reader. Tinkers is a novel that exudes the aroma of centuries of literary history, but it’s written by an author who spared little time to make creative use of that. Instead, Harding appears to have picked a couple of serviceable tropes and images and funneled the family history through them. Additionally, there’s an ill-advised attempt to write a pastiche or parody of 18th century tracts (as in excerpts from a book called “The Reasonable Horologist”), which isn’t creative, just inept. Actually, these pastiches are more than that: they are indicators that Harding’s reading of 18th and 19th century fiction is lacking a certain amount of insightful thinking. What thinking he does is almost exclusively focused on prose craftsmanship, whether his own or other people’s materials are concerned, which is why Tinkers is so good in that department yet so poor in others. The most obvious example of all this is his use of the clock as a central metaphor in the book, which is easily one of the most tired metaphors in all of literary history, having been used constantly throughout the centuries, in different cultures and different languages; and he’s really having at it: clocks are the obsession of George Washington Crosby, one of Tinkers‘ protagonists; they are also used in the traditional sense, with clockwork as a stand-in for the complexity of life. Lastly, the book’s preoccupation with the mechanics of clocks is additionally reflected in its complex (but not complicated) structure, where different periods, and different protagonists are taking turns etc. The book’s three protagonists are not all of them obsessed with or interested in clocks, but they are all tinkers, and Crosby’s clock-affinity is ultimately suggested to be a legacy of this odd family.

Tinkers is a novel about three generations of New Englanders. The book opens with an image of George on his deathbed, thinking about his life and remembering his father. His whole family, members of which are scattered all over the US, has gathered to accompany him on his final journey. The house is crawling with clocks but they have been silenced, to George’s chagrin. Harding doesn’t just latch on to a narrative method like Proust’s (which would result in too complicated a book for Harding’s liking anyway, one suspects, given how much priority he accords to cheap palatability), diving in and out of memory. Instead, the whole book is neatly cut up and compartmentalized. It consists of four chapters each of which tells one person’s story and intertwines it with another’s. This is quite significant: the memories that we learn about are not only or even predominantly those of the dominant narrator. Instead they often appear to be independently told pieces. In the first section, where George ‘remembers’ his father, Howard, for example, Howard’s pieces sometimes retell events that George cannot have witnessed. Other pieces are more straightforwardly connected to George’s memories. That first chapter is George’s, and sketches his comfortable situation, his friendly family, their patience with his illness, their loving care and attention. He lives in a house he built with his own hands, he had a good education, and worked as a teacher, teaching maths and mechanical drawing. His chapter tells us a lot about his life, although in bits and pieces, in small lists of information. It also introduces his father, Howard. Howard’s life is in direct contrast to George’s. Howard was a salesman, traveling the Maine countryside to sell and fix pots and pans, accessories and soap. With a wagon drawn by a mule (called Prince Edward), he spent all day in the open, often helping with a plethora of other tasks. Finally, the first chapter also introduces us to the problem of remembering and writing down one’s own life in a worthwhile manner.

In an early scene, George attempts to record his life onto tape, but he is put off by the way he sounds, “not very well educated”, appearing like “a bumpkin” who is asked “to testify about holy things”, but asked in mockery because “not the testimony but the fumbling through it” are the reason for his appearance. George’s disgust with this has him break off the attempt. In an ironic turn of events, Paul Harding’s novel itself sounds as if it were the product of a similar resentment, over-correcting the flaw and focusing on the sleek delivery and caring very little about the ‘testimony’, i.e. the content of the book. There is more to that scene than that, however. The failed attempt at autobiography I described leads consequently to George lying in his bed, wanting to remember, but not being able to do so in a controlled manner. Many of Howard’s pieces appear to be editorial insertions to provide a context and history for George’s impressions of Howard. The narrator appears to be a kind of literary executor of George, trying to make as much sense of George’s life and memories as possible, ‘tinkering’ with them, fixing them. This is the source of the aforementioned seriousness: for the narrator, George is Important, and his life deserves this monument. The book’s mechanics and narrative are then shown to be the means with which that task is undertaken. This is admirable, but it makes for very unsurprising and uninteresting reading. None of Tinkers‘ readers will have been surprised when they realized that George’s fixing of clocks and tinkering, building, repairing things is a reaction to his childhood, when he grew up with a ‘broken’ father, and, ultimately, a ‘broken’ family. The second chapter talks at length about Howard, who is suffering from violent epileptic fits, and whose lack of professional success appears to exacerbate this condition. He hides this illness from his children, but by and by, family life disintegrates.

The third chapter is narrated by Howard, and it is the only part of the book that is delivered by a first person narrator. There are well-wrought changes in the various third person narrators before and after that chapter, some personal, some not so much, but this chapter is the first first person one. This is significant in several ways. In this chapter, which tells us about Howard’s youth, and his own father, we never learn the father’s name. To young Howard, he is only ever “father” or Dad”. Howard’s father was a Methodist minister, that much we’re told, a profession which in the book serves to contextualize the errant wanderings and thoughts of both Howard and George. Young Howard’s family life, too, falls apart, and it, too, fails due to the family illness, one imagines. Although the fathers in Tinkers ultimately seem to leave their sons, the book has an almost foundational nature, telling its readers about an American family, with an American faith, living in New England. Accordingly, the countryside plays an important role. It is a rough rural landscape that seems to have strolled straight over from Thoreau’s rustic meditations. Harding does an excellent job describing the nature that surrounds his characters, the trees, lakes, the grass. Almost immediately, we have a feeling for the landscape, and just as quickly, we see how Harding’s descriptions of his characters tie in with that landscape. It’s a testament to his skills that he is able to conjure a whole world, complete with curious objects and a very peculiar atmosphere, in just a handful of pages. But these skills are not that of an attentive observer. Instead, Harding constructs his nature from the rich reservoir of American literature. His New England might be inspired by memories or observation of actual natural vistas, but the result is clearly not connected to reality as much as to descriptions found in the work of writers such as Robert Frost, Emerson and the aforementioned Thoreau, charged with an almost clerical faith.

Fevered visions of heads looking out of a lake, catching fish with their mouths alone, of teeth in trees and other oddities carry more than a whiff of a Christian literary tradition, with traces of Dante, Augustine and Milton disseminated over the small pages of Tinkers. But while these writers invested their work with some heavy-duty thinking and an enormous intelligence, Paul Harding, and this is the book’s major shortcoming, is merely a highly skilled version of Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt or Paolo Coelho, inasmuch as their opinions on life and death are concerned. This reader needed a break from the book whenever the author decided to wax lyrical in what seemed to be the most banal way possible, as far as the content was concerned; what’s worse, it gets more and more obtrusive and annoying as the book comes to a close, although the writing is excellent throughout Tinkers. Even as the neatness of the book’s layered structure, the power of its emotions, as these start to really impress the reader, Harding spoils it all by keeping to try and ‘meaningfully’ discussing the “unknowable” and describing preparations for the end while having his protagonist clean one of the damn clocks. I’m not saying it’s something he can’t do, because Tinkers gives off the impression of him not even having tried to invest his extraordinary writing with a modicum of intelligence.

Hidden in this book is a spare meditation about the burdens we inherit, about the power we have to start anew, hidden also is a fine, considered, traditional ars moriendi, with a dying man’s last thoughts, breathing a last, dignified breath. Hidden, too, is a book about the changes that Americans underwent these past years, about the role that acceptance and commitments play in the treatment of illnesses, and a book about the epiphanies of adolescence. All this is in there, but hidden behind a large smoke screen of likeable effects and cheap sentimentalities. It is downright depressing. Thoreau, in a letter to Emerson (July 8, 1843, if you must know), wrote

It is the height of art that, on the first perusal, plain common sense should appear; on the second, severe truth; and on a third, beauty; and, having these warrants for its depth and reality, we may then enjoy the beauty for evermore.

Harding took a shortcut. Instead of “severe truth” he opted for sentimentalities and instead of severe beauty he chose a hokum cuteness. I assure you, there is an excellent book hidden here behind the complacent, brainless tear-jerker that Tinkers turned out to be. Whatever its flaws, it is a nice read, and Harding, as a writer, is highly skilled, and his instincts are frequently excellent. This is not a very good book, yet it’s also not a bad one. It’s a disposable, but ultimately a moving book. It’s short, and a quick read, and imbued with the elegant serenity of Christian traditions. It doesn’t approach Aquinas’ claritas pulchri, but why should it have to. A very decent book, and miles above the tripe that Moore, Auster et al. keep publishing. You might point out that I read and enjoy a lot of tripe (watch out for a review of Twilight at this blog sometime soon), why am I so hard on a book that is clearly so accomplished? Because it could have been much better. Stephenie Meyer can’t write good prose to save her life. Tinkers is held back by a measured complacency, its author has actually remarkable skills and good instincts. This book, it bears repeating, could have been much better.  The result is artistically mediocre and politically problematic. However, the prizes awarded to this book are not a shock, as they appear to express a longing for the 19th century qualities Harding emulates, and his very modern, taut writing and structure, well-schooled and effective may just have clinched the deal. Why his mass-market-ready book was repeatedly rejected by publishers does puzzle me. The bottom line is: I wanted to like this book, I didn’t. Is is worth reading? Given the amount of extraordinary books out there, I have to say no. But if you look for a quick, competently executed, cute read, by all means, go ahead.


8 thoughts on “Paul Harding: Tinkers

  1. Ha. I worried that calling it a “complacent, brainless tear-jerker” would cause people to complain but so far, people agree.


  2. Pingback: Sarah Hall: Daughters of the North / The Carhullan Army « shigekuni.

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  4. Hello Marcel!

    This is not the first time I read this review. Tinkers has been translated into French now, and will be released next month, by “Le Cherche-Midi, Lot 49” (Claro’s series, the translator is Pierre Demarty). I’m looking forward to reading it!I know your review is lukewarm, but I have to make my own opinion (and I’ll tell you;-))

    Thanks for your great reviews (you know I’m a fan!)

  5. I took a class in writing over thirty years ago. One of the cardinal rules I learned about anything you write; you have to have a good story. I kept hoping for a story in Tinkers but it never happened.

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