Tinkers by Paul Harding
Bellevue Literary Press, January 1, 2009
Chances are, you had never heard of Paul Harding before the Pulitzer Prize announcement last week, when we won the fiction prize for Tinkers, published by Bellevue Literary Press. It was the first time a small press won the Pulitzer for fiction since A Confederacy of Dunces (LSU Press) won in 1981.
Since then, review outlets have written about the inevitability of quality fiction sinking under the radar. (Tinkers was reviewed favorably in The New Yorker and Publisher's Weekly. Many other publications—including BookPage—looked it over.) And there has been some backlash, or at least raised eyebrows, at the surprise expressed after Harding's win. When the New York Times ran a piece about Tinkers' unlikely rise to fame, Jennifer Weiner retorted on Twitter: "Indie booksellers, book bloggers congratulating themselves for getting TINKERS sales all the way to...7,000" and "Then again, I also never thought Times would fail to review debut by guy w/Iowa degree. Doesn't that come free w/diploma?"
After all the write-ups and raves about Tinkers, I decided to see why the Pulitzer Prize committee called the novel "a powerful celebration of life in which a New England father and son, through suffering and joy, transcend their imprisoning lives and offer new ways of perceiving the world and mortality."
I read Tinkers in one sitting, and though my expectations were incredibly (unreachably) high, I found the book to be deeply moving and beautifully written. It caused me to reflect on the small interactions that add up to a life, and the legacy we'll all leave behind. Tinkers is about an old man, a clock repairer, on bed rest at the end of his life. Most of the action takes place in his memory as he thinks about his father, a tinker. There are no quotation marks in the book, and the sparse dialogue feels like a smooth extension of the old man's thoughts.
The following passage (after the jump) takes place toward the beginning of the book, when the man (George Washington Crosby) decides to record his own oral history:
He began formally: My name is George Washington Crosby. I was born in West Cove, Maine, in the year 1915. I moved to Enon, Massachusetts, in 1936. And so on. After these statistics, he found that he could think only of doggerel and slightly obscene anecdotes to tell, mostly having to do with foolish stunts undertaken after drinking too much whiskey during a fishing trip and often enough centered around running into a warden with a creel full of trout and no fishing license, or a pistol that a doctor had brought into the woods: If that pistol is nine millimeters, I’ll kiss your bare, frozen ass right out there on the ice; the lyrics to a song called Come Around, Mother, It’s Better When You’re Awake. And so forth. But after a handful of such stories, he began to talk about his father and his mother, his brother, Joe, and his sisters, about taking night courses to finish school and about becoming a father. He talked about blue snow and barrels of apples and splitting frozen wood so brittle that it rang when you split it. He talked about what it is like to be a grandparent for the first time and to think about what it is you will leave behind when you die. By the time the tape ran out an hour and a half later (after he had flipped it over once, almost without being conscious of doing so), and the RECORD button sprang up with a buzz, he was openly weeping and lamenting the loss of this world of light and hope. So deeply moved, he pulled the cassette from the machine, flipped it back over to the beginning, fitted it back into its snug carriage of capstans and guiding pins, and pressed PLAY, thinking that he might preserve such a mood of pure, clean sorrow by listening back to his narrative. He imagined that his memoirs might now sound like those of an admirable stranger, a person he did not know but whom he immediately recognized and loved dearly. Instead, the voice he heard sounded nasally and pinched and, worse, not very well educated, as if he were a bumpkin who had been called, perhaps even in mockery, to testify about holy things, as if not the testimony but the fumbling through it were the reason for his presence in front of some dire, heavenly senate. He listened to six seconds of the tape before he ejected it and threw it into the fire burning in the woodstove.
What are you reading today?