"Tinkers" by Paul Harding

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Every book has its individualism. Every book has the chords that it plays, and its events, its moods, its peculiar light. “Tinkers” by Paul Harding has gray and black, done in chiaroscuro, contrasting hues that represent the universe and the deep insides of people’s souls. This remarkable, dense little book presents so many challenges in its brief pages – it’s like slicing into a geode of quartz and finding that the crystals lead to other mountain ranges, which you would have to shrink to go to, before returning to your normal size. I’m glad to quote Marilynne Robinson here, however obvious and inadequate it is: “‘Tinkers’ is truly remarkable.”

Instinct tells me that propounding the plot would do this book a disservice, but maybe we’ll let it take us to an appreciation. “Tinkers” consists of the story of father and son, each their own type of tinker. The father is the itinerant kind, who tries to make a living driving a cart with goods for sale around the countryside during the first quarter of the 20th century. The story also introduces his son, who approaches death’s door at the novel’s outset. The narrative features in stunning and clear language, the conflict that arises when individuals throw in together but are hopelessly, grandly, mismatched in their abilities to cope with life and the world. That, however, makes up but a small part of the energy and raison d’être of this book.

The salient outward event of the story comes when Howard, the older character, realizes his wife wants to institutionalize him because of his epilepsy, and he leaves her and his family one night during the dinner hour and never goes back. The following passage, illuminating his understanding that he has misread his wife’s taciturn ways, gives a glimpse at the depth of feeling Harding evokes, and the soaring language he puts in his tinker/poet’s mind. As he drives past his own house and his own family seated to dinner, never to return, we can hear him wail:

“God hear me weep because I let myself think all is well if I am fully stocked with both colors of shoeshine and beeswax for the wooden tables, sea sponge and steel wool for dirty dishes. God hear me weep as I fill out receipts for tin buckets and slip hooch into pockets for cash, and tell people about my whip-smart sons and beautiful daughters … because my wife’s silence is not the forbearance of decent, stern people who fear You; it is the quiet of outrage, of bitterness. It is the quiet of biding time. God forgive me. I am leaving.”
Such is the strength of Harding’s diction; page after page contains language powerful enough to startle us and make us pause, to make us pull out our notebooks and transcribe at length. Another I must share: on the day Howard’s mother takes his own failing father away into the care of others, “My mother opened the outside door and the light came in and carved every object in the kitchen into an ancient relic. I could not imagine what people had ever done with iron skillets or rolling pins.” In the interests of space, I will not relay any of the numerous other examples so chock-filling this book.

I will, however, observe that Mr. Harding includes a vein running through the story, consisting of a high-toned phenomenology embraced by Howard, by any measure the main character. Our first glimpse comes when Howard imagines what happens when his grand mal seizures hit. He perceives that a door opens, a door which in normal times is disguised as the natural world, and that needles of a constantly-flowing electricity find him and stick fast to him, cleaving him in the middle, holding and holding to something inside him. Howard wonders at the forces that find him at these moments. He thinks he sees death from a different vantage from ordinary humans; he is allowed glimpses of the cosmos other must die to see. Aside from this admittedly inadequate discussion, please let me assure any potential reader that this facet of the story is worth the price of admission itself, and raises the chicken-and-egg question: is Howard a poet because of his affliction, or is he blessed with these hard-won insights because of his poetic nature?

Father and son are both tinkers; the son collects antique clocks, fixes and maintains them in his business. We read a series of excerpts in the book, from an 18th-century guide to repairing clocks, which are tinged with the supernatural and philosophical. These are in fact, fitting additions to the off-the-charts language employed here. The story presents the universe as an impossibly complex machine, not unlike an antique clock. In the final flashback showing a healthy GW Crosby (the son tinker), the author guides us to the dark basement, with its numerous ticking clocks and its dark wallpaper. A solitary 40-watt wall lamp illuminates the workbench, and a grandchild is instructed to watch as GW hums and tinkers to no apparent effect. On rare occasions the tick-tocking of all the clocks would synchronize, only to diffuse again into a chaotic pattern. And then in this dark, apparently boring scene, our heroic author lets the child-guest watch the dust float in the light of the jeweler’s lamp and imagine “miniaturized ships exploring inner space: The giant is fixing the time machine.” Thus does Harding turn our space and time inside out, miniaturizing space travel and making a tinker’s basement into the center of the universe.

Time and perception blur as we grope our way along this unique trail. Like David Mitchell and Marilynne Robinson, Paul Harding once again reinforces why we read, why we look forward to the next experience of crackin' open a new one.
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