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It will surprise few readers of Tinkers, a Pulitzer prize-winning first novel, that Paul Harding was a student of Marilynne Robinson, who won a Pulitzer for Gilead in 2005. Robinson swept us into the thoughts of a dying old man with deep spiritual resources. Harding does much the same, taking us through the wandering memories of George Washington Crosby. The novel might have been called As He Lay Dying.
In fact, Harding has something in common with Faulkner: a passionate attachment to place – Maine, in this case, rather than Mississippi – and a sense of time folding in upon itself, often with exhilarating effects. Crosby is a repairer of clocks, a meticulous man, with genuine self-respect as well as the respect of his family and friends, who appear at his bedside in serial fashion to say goodbye.
One of these is Nikki Bocheki, “an old acquaintance from the Unitarian church”. Like everyone in this novel, she is succinctly drawn: “Nikki was an old woman who dressed like an ageing former starlet whose most dramatic, and final, role was that of the ageing former starlet persevering under the tyranny of time. She was, in fact, a nurse. Once she had chatted with George (who never remembered who she was) and his wife, she shooed the exhausted family from the room. I have three hours before my shift and I can’t think of a nicer way to spend it than taking care of this sweet pie.”
The Faulkneresque manner resonates as Harding slips in and out of dialogue without quotation marks. He jumps from thought to thought, centred in the consciousness of old George but never confined to it. Stories are layered within stories, as when we hear about the “old Budden place” that burns down with the family inside (shades of the Bundren family in As I Lay Dying) or the stories of the various people who came into contact with George’s epileptic father, Howard, an old-fashioned peddler – the tinker of the title, whose peripatetic life preoccupies his son in these last eight days.
As it would, the mind twists and turns through time, breaking free of it. Harding is good at this, and beautiful moments flash and fade, as in the final scene where George recalls a visit from his father in 1953. It is Christmas day, and the old tinker appears just as George and his wife and two daughters, Betsy and Claire (both at his deathbed now), are sitting down to eat. In George’s fragmenting mind, his father enters the room quietly, sits on the couch with his hat in his lap, and inquires about the family, whom he has not seen in some time. His last words become the last words of his son as well: “I am a strange old man, yes. Well, no, I’d better be going. It was good to see you again George. Yes, yes, I will. Goodbye.”
For all its quasi-modernist pyrotechnics, this is quite a simple story. Things that are difficult owe their complication to the hallucinatory quality of George’s compromised consciousness. Again, Faulkner comes to mind, as in the passages where George recalls his father’s encounters in the Maine woods with the Indians who still linger at the edge of this vanishing wilderness.
There is one Indian called Old Sabbatis, for instance, who comes to repair his father’s wooden canoe every year. Here, as elsewhere, the writing can lift to lovely intensities: “He [Old Sabbatis] seemed to me as old as light and just as diffuse. I thought about him when the sky filled with files of dark clouds, whose silhouettes were traced by the sun and which were interspersed with the clearest and cleanest blue imaginable. When gold and red and brown leaves blow across paths and are taken up by circles of wind, it seems like the passing of his time.” The author’s tenses shift from past to present, reminding us that we are in an old man’s scrambled thoughts.
The world of the tinker’s family is a 19th-century world of impoverished folks who scrape a living from the surrounding countryside and its ragged population. Harding never tires of painting the scene with prose that, here and there, edges toward the poetic with a little too much muscle, reaching for metaphors that don’t quite work: “The sun was going down. It sank into the stand of beech trees beyond the back lot, lighting their tops, so that their bare arterial branches turned to a netting of black vessels around brains made of light.”
The occasional overwriting, the looping narrative, and the almost defiant lack of plot made this a hard book to sell to publishers. An array of editors at major houses rejected the novel, no doubt afraid it would never sell. It apparently sat for several years in the writer’s desk. Then an obscure house, the Bellevue Literary Press, published it to such little fanfare that the New York Times (like most papers) ignored it completely. Then, miracle of miracles, it won the Pulitzer.
It remains to be seen where Paul Harding, surely a gifted writer, will go from here. But Tinkers is worth any reader’s time. It’s an astringent meditation on loss, family ties, and the presence of the past, which – as Faulkner once suggested – is never dead. It’s never really past.
Jay Parini’s novel The Passages of H.M. will be published in February by Canongate.
Source: The Guardian
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