Monday, November 29, 2010

#52 - Tinkers

Paul Harding's novel, Tinkers, won the Pulitzer Prize last year, and it's a novel more than worth its success. First published by the Bellevue Literary Press in NYC, the novel will hopefully find a wider audience now that it's being published by HarperCollins. Anyway, the publishing history isn't really the purpose of writing a review on the blog, is it?

In a way, Tinkers will feel familiar to Canadians, it's premise, an old man lays dying and reflects on his life, is one that we're quite familiar with. If it were only called Stone Tinkers, it'd probably be a bestseller. The novel intertwines the stories of son and father, George and Howard Aaron Crosby, as George lays dying, system shutting down, in his living room. Surrounded by family, sometimes George knows what's happening, sometimes his body betrays him, but Harding has a particular talent for writing his death honestly and without pretense.

Both George and his father are good, honest people, but that doesn't mean they always make the right decision. Without necessarily wanting to spoil anything (and it's written in the marketing blurb), they've been estranged for years when Howard, who is epileptic, abandons his family on the pretense that his hard, hard wife has finally reached the end of her rope with the burden of his disease, and is about to commit him to an institution.

Howard, a tinker, who walked the cold backroads of Maine with his cart selling anything and everything, simply turns in the other direction and doesn't go home. He begins an entirely new and fulfilling life that seems at peace with his utterly good nature -- but, then again, it's not an honourable thing to leave your family behind with no way to support itself. But the way its written, you actually feel sympathy for Howard, you feel like it's the right thing to do, and are convinced that everything will be fine.

George, a clock repairman, has led a happy, quiet life. Precision guides him, even in death, and as his body shuts down, its elements of machinery, the very same things that guided George through life, are failing. His mind wanders, he can't recognize the family members by his bed, but he notices that his favourite clock isn't wound. In this simple example, it's apparent that one of the most moving aspects of Tinkers remains Harding's ability to describe a body deteriorating into death. Tears came to my eyes more than once throughout my reading of this novel -- I was reminded of my mother, of how her body failed in the few days it took her to die. Sometimes his descriptions were so apt that I felt the pain of the loss in my chest. To me, that's the sign of an exceptional writer. Someone who can move you to remember or feel something so personal yet so unrelated to the story by the simple power of a sentence.

Harding attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and worked with Marilynne Robinson, and you can feel her influence all over this novel. It's quiet but intense, the characters are wholly good people with complex flaws, and the novel's simple story betrays the power of the prose. Overall, I'd highly recommend this book -- it's a quick, emotionally satisfying read -- it's perfect for a rainy day when you have some time to spend just laying about on the couch. But have a tissue or two on hand...

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