Critics have called “Tinkers” a “masterpiece,” “astonishing, “stunning,” “breathtaking,” “truly remarkable” and other words that gush with praise. Really? This first novel by Paul Harding not only won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2010 (prestige plus ten thousand dollars), but also received recognition from all sorts of literary gurus. So my opinion, strictly as a reader, is apparently by far in the minority.
I don’t know if 119 pages make this a novel or a novella. In spite of the fact that it looks like a quick read, the book took me forever to finish. Getting to the end became a daunting task rather than the pleasure I hope for when choosing a book.
“Tinkers” opens with this sentence: “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.” The key word is hallucinate. While “Tinkers” doesn’t have much of a storyline, it does include a lot of hallucinatory type, psychological passages. The plot centers on father and son; the dying son George has not seen his epileptic father, Howard, in years. Howard was a traveling peddler or tinker and George tinkers with clocks, at least he did before landing on his deathbed.
The book alternates segments from each man’s life. The George part goes into detail about clocks. A sample sentence reads, “This accomplished, the horologist then lifts the rickety sandwich of loose guts to eye level, holding the works approximately together by squeezing the two plates, taking care to apply neither too much pressure (thus damaging the finer of the unaligned arbor ends) nor too little (thus causing the half-re-formed machine to disassemble itself back into its various constituent parts, which often flee to dusty and obscure nooks through the horologist’s workshop, causing much profaning and blasphemy).” Phew. Here’s one from the Howard section. “The flowers Howard now walked among were the few last heirs to that brief local span of disaster and regeneration and he felt close to the sort of secrets he often caught himself wondering about, the revelations of which he only ever realized he had been in the proximity of after he became conscious of that proximity, and that phenomenon, of becoming conscious, was the very thing that whisked him away, so that any bit of insight or gleaning was available only in retrospect, as a sort of afterglow that remained but that was not accessible through words.”
There’s no quarrel with the poetic quality and the originality of the writing. However, personally, I don’t read books to admire the writing. To me, good writing keeps the story engaging without a reader being conscious of the “good writing.”
Incidentally, the author used to be a drummer in a band. A native of the Boston area, he earned a Master’s from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has taught writing at Harvard and the University of Iowa.
Paul Harding, Tinkers, Published by Bellevue Literary Press