Paul Harding’s Tinkers

TinkersPaul Harding’s first novel, Tinkers, was published in 2009 when he was 42 years old, a late start for a then-unknown graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but no doubt he was gratified to find any publisher after the slew of early rejections. The Bellevue Literary Press, so small that its main offices are located within Bellevue Hospital in New York City, wisely gambled on the tiny manuscript, offering Harding a $1,000 advance (pause, for a moment, to consider selling something dear to you, something that you had toiled over for years, for $1,000) on sales. Word of mouth, strong early reviews and the support of small bookstores brought it to the attention of the Pulitzer Prize jury, even before the New York Times reviewed it, and a surprising – albeit well-deserved – victory has boosted its sales and brought its author to international prominence. 

The novel itself is episodic, winding its way through the deathbed memories of George Washington Crosby as he recollects scenes from his childhood, and it is these last thoughts of a dying man that give the novel its form. I am reminded of T.S. Eliot, who in The Waste Land writes, “Son of man, / You cannot say, or guess, for you know / Only a heap of broken images…” as both a meditation on mortality (“I will show you fear in a handful of dust”) and as a kind of key to the poem itself, which is nothing if not a “heap of broken images.” Harding is similarly eager for his reader to grasp his stratagem:

George Crosby remembered many things as he died, but in an order he could not control. To look at his life, to take the stock he always imagined a man would at his end, was to witness a shifting mass, the tiles of a mosaic spinning, swirling, reportraying, always in recognizable swaths of colors, familiar elements, molecular units, intimate currents, but also independent now of his will, showing him a different self every time he tried to make an assessment.

The novel itself is a mosaic, a collection of memories and anecdotes “reportraying” its subjects at various stages of their lives, but what begins in the consciousness of George Washington Crosby extends, through the author’s poetic license, to include George’s father and grandfather, three generations of Crosby men who lived and died and are no more. There is a Faulknerian obsession with lineage and legacy in the novel, and for good reason. Here is Harding’s review of Faulkner’s wonderful Go Down, Moses, as printed in The Millions:

Taken as a single, coherent work, the book’s power and vision are as incredible as any of his other masterpieces. All of the previously impenetrable (to me, anyway) genealogical material in “The Bear,” for example, makes earthquaking sense in context of the rest of the book; it’s like the genealogies in the Bible that trace every person back to Adam and Eve, which is to say bind every person together in one family. It’s just like a book Moses would have written, in fact.

We have an inbuilt obsession with genealogy, with the question of “where we came from,” and part of the project of Tinkers is to explore this obsession and its origins. While contemplating his own demise, George lights upon this question of genealogy and legacy in terms reminiscent of Harding’s description of Go Down, Moses:

…to my great-grandchildren, with more space than tiles, I will be no more than the smoky arrangement of a set of rumors, and to their great-grandchildren I will be no more than a tint of some obscure color, and to their great grandchildren nothing they ever know about, and so what army of strangers and ghosts has shaped and colored me until back to Adam, until back to when ribs were blown from molten sand into the glass bits that took up the light of this world because they were made from this world, even though the fleeting tenants of those bits of colored glass have vacated them before they have had even the remotest understanding of what it is to inhabit them…

It isn’t pleasant to hear, but this is the unassailable truth: your life, however important it has been to you, becomes gradually less meaningful with each passing generation, until you become one of the “army of ghosts and strangers” who preceded you, whose lives were necessary for your very heart to beat but who exist now only in anecdotes or memories or discolored photographs in long-forgotten family albums.

Art is and always has been a reaction to this sad fact, a resistance against the impending darkness, noble even in its futility – or perhaps because of its futility. Tinkers is a worthy contribution to the cause, haunting in its lyricism and painfully familiar in its insight.