Saturday, September 4, 2010

Paul Harding digs into New England culture in this stunning debut

I picked this novel up in an airport bookstore. It sounded fascinating, and I was pleased to see that it had won a Pulitzer Prize. The prize was much-deserved!


Tinkers (191 pages, Bellevue Literary Press, $14,95) is Paul Harding’s first novel. It’s poetic presentation of the hard life of a couple of generations of New England men who make a living in an unforgiving land. Eighty-four year old George lies dying among his family and friends. George, slipping in and out of consciousness, fantasizes about what the people around him are thinking, and he thinks back upon a life of tinkering. Gainfully employed for years as a teacher and manager, it is only after his retirement that he found an occupation that he loved: repairing clocks. There is something about the complex inner working of an assortment of timepieces that fascinates George. When there are not a dozen clocks ticking around him, he finds the silence maddening.

Harding takes us into George’s imagination, and before long we are reading about how watches and clocks are put together. Harding’s vivid accounts of the inner workings of a clock, truly wonderful to read, are complemented by an equally intimate account of the landscape of Maine. When I say intimate, I mean that he looks beyond the rocks and trees, into the woods, and even to the piles of leaves on the woodland floor and the mud that creates ruts in the roads and coats everything that it touches.

I have read three novels set in Maine this summer, but this is the one that gets most deeply into the landscape, even as it tells a story about George and his father Howard. Howard drove a mule cart around New England, selling soaps and other household materials to women dotted across the land in isolated farmhouses.

The narrative takes us in and out of George’s story and Howard’s, but before long we realize that this is happening because what George has as his deepest consciousness are these memories of his father. Given to seizures, his father left home as soon as he realized that his wife was ready to put him into a home. He has lived away and had a second family, and only when George is fully grown does his father return to account for the intervening years.

Harding’s feeling for these lives scarped from the land itself is extraordinarily rich, and the language in which he describes this setting is amazingly supple and vivid. The novel is often praised for its style, but the style does not insist on itself or show off with pyrotechnics; instead, Harding writes simply and beautifully about things that are hard, brittle, and even off-putting. In doing so, he makes them irresistible.

Harding tells a very moving story, and I would not want to change a single word.

Paul Harding

Paul Harding's Tinkers available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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