Normally, I prefer coming into a new book cold, not knowing the particulars of the author or reviews (I also don’t like movie previews). However, I did hear a few things from a publishing insider before reading Paul Harding’s Tinkers. After many rejections, the book was published by Bellevue Literary Press, an imprint of the NYU School of Medicine. Word of mouth built through independent book sellers and the book just won the Pulitzer. Why mention this? Because we often write with an eye on the audience. Tinkers doesn’t. Of course a prominent literary mentor helps (see below). The best thing an author can do is to write and worry about the rest after the book is done. The other piece of information that perhaps made me a bit more tolerant of the structure was hearing that Harding sat down with the entire manuscript (not long at 191 small pages), cut it up and pieced it back together. When faced with some structural changes in the novel I recently completed, I sat down on the floor with the physical manuscript and moved things around, not to the degree Harding did (not appropriate for this book), but it was very helpful to work with the actual rather than virtual pages. In Tinkers, there is a certain patchwork quality that reinforces the jumble of memories that come to a man as he dies and I found it interesting to consider both of those processes as I read the book. There is not always such a clear opportunity for narrative and theme to mirror each other, but when there is as in this case, it’s an effective tool.
What I was not aware of ahead of time, but what is unmistakable, is the influence of Marilynne Robinson, particularly Gilead. The tone, mood, language choice, the son with a minister for a father are all similar. I found it less derivative, more inspired by Robinson, but that’s a fine line depending on whether one enjoys the book or not. Harding does have his own distinct poetic style and (also like Robinson), he puts it to use to observe the world in remarkable detail. There is no earth-shattering plot here, just a quiet finely tuned story about a dying man. Harding is a good example of keeping language simple in order to be effective.
His sentences are often long, “The weaver might have made one bad loop in the foliage of a sugar maple by the road and that one loop of whatever the thread might be wound from – light, gravity, dark from stars – had somehow been worked loose by the wind in its constant worrying of white buds and green leaves and blood-and-orange leaves and bare branches and two of the pieces of whatever it is that this world is knit from had come loose from each other and there was maybe just a finger width’s hole, which I was lucky enough to spot in the glittering leaves from this wagon of drawers and nimble enough to scale the silver trunk and brave enough to poke my finger into the tear, that might offer to the simple touch a measure of tranquillity or reassurance.” (54) I don’t always consider sentence length, particularly not very long sentences, as a way to control the pace of the narrative and it’s a device to keep in mind. More importantly, when I write, I tend to gallop ahead to the next conflict and then go back to fill in detail. Such a minutely observed narrative shows the power of slowing way down and as I begin the next novel, I will try to stay in the moment in order to mine all of the sensory detail before moving on.
The other striking thing in Tinkers is that Harding changes tense, moving from first to third to second person. This is not something to be undertaken without purpose. Here it serves the notion of the dying brain and a narrative that begins, “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.” There are quiet pleasures, from the building of a bird’s nest to the inner workings of watches and clocks, that can be read in a sitting. Harding is a solid example of the treasures found in a meticulous novel that has more to tell than the story of a man’s death.