Book Review: Tinkers, by Paul Harding

I was lucky enough to see the first headlines during my lunch break at work about this little novel winning the Pulitzer Prize last month.  It was lucky as I was then able to reserve a copy at the library right away, before anybody else put it on hold.  I was excited to be first in line, especially when I saw the Las Vegas Clark County Library District only has six copies of it!  (Last year’s winner, Oliver Kitteridge, has 18 copies available.)  Surely more would soon be on the way.  Checking back just now, however, shows that not to be the case.  Apparently, six of this one will do.

And so it might, as only 24 people have it on hold.  After more than two weeks?  For a Pulitzer winner?  800 people had Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol on hold last year.  Much has been made of Tinkers being from a small press.  Perhaps this is a good illustration of that obscurity. 

That was the first reason why I was excited about reading it–the news release noted that the last time a small press novel had won was with 1981’s A Confederacy of Dunces, which I loved.  Where that was a sprawling, bawdy, comic satire, however, Tinkers is a sparse, dense, somber analysis of the effect of death on the living and dying. 

Tinkers is what The Year of Magical Thinking would have looked like, had it been written by Cormac McCarthy. 

Paul Harding’s story here is not itself terribly special: he uses one man’s imminent death to catalyze a series of generational fugues, revealing perceived memories of fathers, sons, and grandfathers across a century and more.  The big star in this short book is clear, though: Harding has a knack for embedding lusciously vibrant phrasing into that dry, skeletal, bare knuckles style most famously employed these days by McCarthy.  The clarity of his vision amazes, even awes, on every page.  Though the work is not without fault–understandably, he sometimes overreaches, as most anyone would do with writing this ambitious (it is, without doubt, the work of a young, relatively inexperienced writer)–his style alone makes Tinkers notable and worthy. 

As much as the writing works, most of the story does not.  Little happens, and the supposed connections between generations never really come to fruition, leaving islands of characters, rather than a family tree.  Only the ending truly ties the men together, and while I liked it, others could easily, justifiably find it too remote, leaving too much distance between characters, and from the reader. 

Most successful literary fiction today is educated and urban, in temperament if not in setting, so it was good to read such an unabashedly rural, physical novel.  Imbued with equal parts love for machinery and tools, for land and climate, and for bodies and brains, Tinkers celebrates life not with joie de vivre, but with an acknowledgement that these things combine to make life powerful, in sadness and joy.  (That being said, Harding’s attempt to thematically join human beings and clockworks came off as obvious and clichéd.  It’s been done, Mr. Harding, and it’s been done better.)

The best parts of the story concern Howard’s epileptic seizures, and Harding gives us the very best writing in the novel when we see the world through Howard’s poetic but fractured eyes (so, again, the value of the book comes back to its style).  But with a work whose claim to significance rests so entirely on this one element, one must worry about the future for Paul Harding.  Style is a dangerous thing to base a career on, almost a recipe for a one-hit wonder.  I’m thinking here mostly of Marcia Pessl’s 2006 debut, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, a book so unrelentingly cutesy, with its clever similes every three lines for hundreds of pages, that I couldn’t even finish it. 

Hopefully Harding can channel the strong but ambiguous success of his own debut and make it merely the beginning of a great career.  I’d love to read more by him, if he can take this great style and apply it to truly remarkable stories.  With any luck, history will remember Tinkers as a promising start whose author flourished and produced true masterpieces later on. 

Final Grade: B+

2 comments on “Book Review: Tinkers, by Paul Harding

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