Review of Tinkers by Paul Harding Published by Bellvue Literary Press, January 2009, 192 pages
Tinkers, by Paul Harding had several distinctions for me. For one thing, it was the first book I read on the new Kindle I received for Christmas last year. Also, it was the first time I’d read a Pulitzer Prize winning novel without knowing that it had won. For some reason, Amazon said nothing about it being awarded the Prize and if I had heard it, I had forgotten it, because at the time I’d never heard of the book. When, after finishing it, I came across something about it winning, I was shocked, not because I don’t think it deserves it, but because it’s not the kind of book one normally expects the Pulitzer judges to recognize.
For one thing, it doesn’t come from one of the major publishing houses like most Pulitzer winners do (the last one which didn’t was “A Confederacy of Dunes” by John Kennedy O’Toole in 1981, almost thirty years ago), and also, because it is a small, almost plot less book written from the point of view of a man in his final days of life. Still, the richness of the language and the strangeness of the story draw you in and by the time you stop to wonder where this story is going, it’s already gone there and is over.
The novel begins with a sentence (“George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.”) that I would argue either draws you in or makes you close the book and never finish reading it. I was actually tempted to do the latter, but for some reason I didn’t. For the next few pages, the author describes those hallucinations, which include the house where he has lived most of his adult life, collapsing down upon. Not just the ceilings and walls, but all the processions he and his family have adorned the place with, the floors which he falls through into a basement, filled with more collapsing memoirs and debris. And not just the things inside the house, but the blue sky above him and the ground around him and the stars and moon and planets, all come crashing in on him.
Of course, since George is hallucinating, the story jumps from place to place, time to time. Sometimes he is awake and lucid, able to talk to one of the grandchildren who are sitting with him through the night. Most of the time is spent thinking of his father, an itinerant peddler who worked in the backwoods mountains of Maine, providing whatever services and supplies those far removed from society people needed. The old man, Howard, was also an epileptic who suffered violent seizures, which left him unconscious and unaware of his surrounding for days at a time. None of them understand the condition and his wife, George’s mother, resents the man for the disease, as though it were some moral failing on his part. When Howard finds a pamphlet from the State Hospital in his wife’s drawer he thinks she’s having him put away and simply never comes home again.
Harding is a master at description, whether he is discussing clock making, a flower in the wilderness, or the condition of epilepsy and it brings the characters in the book to life. His descriptions of the primitive world where his father worked, give you a new perspective on the natural world which is both uncaring of mankind and necessary to him. It’s a small book (192 pages in hardback), but when you finish it, you feel the need to re-read it, in an attempt to capture everything within its covers.
Because of the kind of book it is, not to mention the fact that it came from a small publisher, I was surprised when I saw it had won the 2010 Pulitzer for Fiction, but not disappointed. It’s a truly wonderful book about time, perception and the world around us.
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