Book Review: Tinkers by Paul Harding

In Septembre en France on September 5, 2010 at 10:12 AM

The latest book I read on my adventures here in Europe was one I picked up in Freiburg, Germany while visiting my friend Stefan Ahr last week. He came with me to find a bookstore with English books and this one immediately stuck out to me. Tinkers by Paul Harding was awarded the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this past April and it dawned on me as soon as I saw the title that I don’t think I have ever read a book that has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Of course, this isn’t my top priority, and considering how generally these winners are chosen, I wasn’t necessarily thinking that this would be the next great epic novel that turns into a classic for hundreds of years. But in my thoughts and responses lately to questions of contemporary literature, I thought this might be an interesting place to start. Tinkers is Paul Harding’s first novel and was rejected by multiple different publishers before Bellevue Literary Press finally picked it up.

My first impressions of this book were varied. I use this word because throughout my reading I found that I was challenged and mystified, mesmerized and confused, sentimental and cringing, all at the same time. In terms of emotional variety this book certainly has a remarkable ability to create worlds out of pages that as a reader I hadn’t expected. I actually had to think for quite a while about what I wanted to say in this review about this book simply because there is so much that could be said. In comparison to the other literature that I have read and written about on my blog, Tinkers is completely different. A narrative written across two and sometimes three different time periods, Tinkers focuses upon the life of blue-collar clock repairman George Washington Harvey hours before he dies and his relationship to his estranged epileptic father, Howard Aaron Crosby. Yet, even in writing that, I feel like justice is not done to the book. As much as those words describe the scenario presented in the text, it’s much more complicated than that.

I did some research after reading the book and found an article with an interview with Paul Harding where he talks about his intentions in the book. In this article, (which I found on a website called Bookslut, not really sure why you would want to call your website that, but anyway.) Harding speaks about how Tinkers was originally based off of the real life story of his father who worked on clocks as well and aspects of his relationship with his epileptic father growing up in Maine at the turn of the 20th century. I found this part of the interview to be most helpful in my understanding of the text. Harding is asked the following question in the interview and answers.

“So in a way you wrote this to figure out your own family story?”

To imagine a version of it. I turned it into a legend. I turned it into a myth. It’s imaginative, but I don’t think it’s any less true than what the facts are.

The idea of trying to figure out one’s own family history through literature I found to be a very interesting idea. Many times in my own life I have thought to myself, I wonder what my parents were doing at this point in their lives, who they were talking to, the people they considered to be their best friends and the thoughts that they were thinking. Similarly, I have always wondered the same about my grandparents. Seeing in Tinkers an attempt to put together some of the forgotten memories of lives long past lived, I really appreciated what Harding was trying to do. The mysteries of our parents and grandparents that we can not understand because they are no longer around to explain the personal importance of something, is something that I think almost can identify with.

Yet more than an attempt at revealing light to mystery, the book has a very specific ideology that transcends the text. Harding creates an environment and surroundings of ethereal and sentimentalist Americana that reminded me a lot of the naturalist writings of Thoreau. The love of American nature is unmistakable in the text. The vivid descriptions of Maine’s farmlands are unlike anything I have ever read. The perspective of Howard Crosby presented in the text reveals a beauty and secret wisdom that can be found within nature, very much like the naturalists believed. I will say though, it seems sometimes the descriptions of nature are a little exhaustive. Imaginative and well written every single time, yes. But it does make the book move slowly at times which is what most publishers complained about when they were given the draft of the text.

As well, I found myself slowing down to read the words trying to truly grasp what Harding is trying to say, but I was only disappointed. In this ethereal almost holy place called Maine that Harding has created there is the strong sentiment of finding one’s self in nature, but without any real conclusions. It is as if nature is presented to us with the possibilities of discovering truth and that we are simply too blind to notice, but when the protagonist begins searching within nature for these secrets, no solution is given, only frustration. Beautiful words are used with such fluidity to given nature more beauty than I think I have ever seen words describe before. But where the weakness lies is that nature seems to play this intrinsically important role in the text but ultimately separately from the story of Howard and George Crosby even though Harding combines the two consistently throughout the book.

I think it is apparent in the text and Harding even says himself that he is trying to piece together his grandfather’s role in his own father’s life. And in order to do so he uses nature as well as certain specific memories of his father and grandfather’s lives. What I have a hard time getting over, however, is the lack of connection between nature and the plot. To spend so much time agonizing over the beauty of nature, as if it were a critical role in the lives of his father and grandfather only to bring that aspect of the story to no solid conclusion I found to be very frustrating. It’s as if Harding is presenting “the Search” that almost everyone can identify with in terms of seeking some form of truth, and he chooses nature to help him find truth, but then rejects it at the end.

The prevalent role that nature plays in the text was hard for me to get over because what Harding seems to truly be focusing on in the text is the role of time in one’s life and he therefore fittingly uses a clock and a clock repairman to tell his story. As often as there are references to clocks, I had a difficult time connecting the pieces that Harding presented. Harding I believe uses the whole text as a metaphor of one giant clock. But whether or not I fully understood this metaphor I highly doubt, simply due to inexperience in literary analysis. However, I definitely found the idea of creating a text around the idea of a clock to be most fascinating.

The first half of the book is honestly a little difficult to follow because of the consistent changes in time and the lack of context given for the information that is presented. It focuses on the fears of George Crosby and corresponds to the thoughts and lifestyle of his father Howard growing up on the farm in Maine. What I did appreciate was that in both George and Howard’s lives I found myself being able to identify in a way that I can only describe as American. Images of families gathered around together in a small home in the suburbs in America with the crazy aunt who is a chain smoker, is something that almost all Americans can identify with in terms of either their own lives or  those of their parents or grandparents. I felt like the text brought back memories for me of my grandparents that I hadn’t thought about in years and provoked very strong feelings of sentiment and love for my grandparents, particularly for my grandfather who passed away 11 years ago today. (Which I didn’t even realize until this moment.)

Similarly, the life of Howard Crosby on the farm in Maine is so typically American I don’t think anyone who has lived in America their whole life will be able to mistake the surrounding and environment Harding creates. Particularly being in Europe, reading about all of these aspects of American culture that I haven’t seen or thought about in the past couple months but are so instinctive to us as Americans because it is part of our culture, definitely made me appreciate that much more calling America my home.

The second half of the text focuses almost entirely on the life of Howard Crosby and his life on the farm and only briefly on the life and quickly fading memories of George now only hours away from dying. Yet towards the end a conclusion is given. Normally I wouldn’t spoil the ending, but in this case I don’t think it’s spoiling the ending, merely offering a sort of enlightenment into the text. Also, Harding mentions is himself in the same interview that I mentioned previously. Harding offers this insight about his father’s life.

Towards the end of writing the book and the end of the book itself there’s a very brief passage where he (George) realizes it wasn’t his father who was like a clock, it was him who was like a clock. His father’s fits as being the main spring of a clock exploding and ruining the works, was the analogy that he used throughout his life to negotiate the emotional and psychological repercussions. So at the end he realizes “Who knows what my father though of himself?”

I could write much more about the text but I have honestly found writing this review to be somewhat frustrating. Not due to any specific circumstances, but simply because the more I think about the book, the more confused I become. I have spent three days writing this review and I erased about half of it and almost wish that I would erase the whole thing and just give up. I think perhaps my frustration comes simply from lack of understanding. This book is something I might have to read over and over in order to fully understand and appreciate. That being said, I did find the book to be enjoyable in terms of sentiment and concept, but definitely confusing and like I said, difficult to read at times.

  1. I’m enjoying the book reviews. While this is a book I would probably not read, it does sound very interesting. You should have onto these reviews and submit them in a portfolio is you ever decide to go into the writing business 🙂

  2. I love what the author said about turning his family’s history into legend and myth. If you don’t feel like you have a good grip on the book, because of whatever reason, that is most likely why you are feeling frustrated with the book review. Book reviews don’t have to explain the book, remember, but critically look at how well they expressed the story to the readers. Bookslut is a good resource to get that interview (although an uncouth name, I agree) but perhaps doing some more research into why it got the Pulitzer, if only to help clarify it more in your own mind.

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