A CL friend told me he had heard good things about Paul Harding’s novel Tinkers, a slim, highly literary work about the inner life of a dying man. The book had been sitting on a table in my office since Katie’s book club read it a year ago and she recommended it. Finally pushed over the edge, I picked the book up last night and finished it this evening. It's been a while since I disliked a book as much as I did this one.
Rejected by big publishers for three years, Tinkers was finally brought out by a small literary press. Then it surprised the book world by winning a 2009 Pulitzer Prize. So obviously there are some smart people out there who disagree with my assessment.
The novel is a countdown to death, a sort of literary grandchild of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Harding takes us inside the waning consciousness of George
Crosby, who in retirement has made a specialty of repairing antique clocks. Through George’s memories we meet his father, an epileptic backwoods tinker
and traveling salesman, and his grandfather, a nutty Methodist
minister. Very little is included about the women in the lives of these three generations, with the exception of one wife who wants to commit her husband to an insane asylum.
Like a much, much longer book I admire, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Tinkers changes voice, tense, and point of view from
page to page; it jumps back and forth in time, from prior generations
to the present and back again; and it intersperses arty subsections that
require extreme mental effort to decipher and fit into place—like
jigsaw pieces that really don't belong with this puzzle.
case of Tinkers these subsections include “excerpts” from a totally
made-up 18th-century manual for clock repair, called The Reasonable
book ruminates in its indirect, offhand, emotionless way about the
clockwork of the human life or soul, and its inevitable running down.
do I buy Infinite Jest (over 1000 pages of similarly fragmentary
prose) while rejecting Tinkers (fewer than 200 pages)? The answer is
in my heart. Usually a sucker for father-son reconciliation stories,
whether the father or son is the prodigal, I was cool and unmoved
over this one. Tinkers smells to me like a literary exercise by an
intellectual who has been hanging around the Iowa Writers Workshop far
too long. Infinite Jest, for all of its literary gymnastics, is just
the opposite: the cry of an open heart tortured by the suffering of
this world and moved by an unquenchable hope for something better.