Tinkers, a first novel by Paul Harding, was the surprise literary success of 2009 in the US. Rejected by several major houses, it was published by a small independent, and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the nature of the book that has achieved all this. Much American fiction is still written in a stripped-down, offhand, monochrome prose that has become the default style of a thousand college writing courses. Tinkers is about as far as you can get from that. Its prose is complex, sometimes convoluted, but at its best suffused with brilliantly realised imagery and a reminder of how rich the written language can still be.
There is not much of a plot, as such. George Washington Crosby, 80 years old, is dying in "a rented hospital bed, placed in the centre of his living room", tended by his loving wife and family. It seems to George, by turns conscious and hallucinating, that his world is disintegrating about him. The house is cracking, its walls falling apart; the ceiling seems to fall on him, then the sky, then the stars. His memory goes back 70 years to 1927 - to his father Howard and the family who live in a tumbledown house in near-poverty.
Howard is a tinker, travelling between the farms of New England on his wagon drawn by an ancient mule. Pots and pans, needles and thread, buckets and thimbles; Howard can produce almost anything. He is a handyman able to "shoot a rabid dog, deliver a baby, put out a fire, pull a rotten tooth, cut a man's hair". But for Howard also the world seems to break apart and remake itself in astonishing ways. He is an epileptic and before his seizures he experiences visions of great calm and beauty, or of nightmare intensity. Then he falls, biting his tongue, his body wracked by uncontrollable spasms. After one terrible fit on a Christmas day, his wife, Katherine, wants to commit him to an asylum.
The story of Howard leaving his family and forging a new life is the nearest thing to a straight narrative. Otherwise, the book interweaves past and present; indeed it is obsessed with time and memory, and the richness and loss they bring. This is a short book, densely written. It demands concentration and amply rewards the effort.
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