Wednesday, January 11, 2012

“Tinkers”: Pulitzer Shmulitzer

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.

In the case of Tinkers these subsections include “excerpts” from a totally made-up 18th-century manual for clock repair, called The Reasonable Horologist. The book ruminates in its indirect, offhand, emotionless way about the clockwork of the human life or soul, and its inevitable running down.

Why 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.


  1. ZING!"Tinkers smells to me like a literary exercise by an intellectual who has been hanging around the Iowa Writers Workshop far too long."

    And to think that decades ago, I thought of applying to go there. ; ) Glad I didn't!

  2. There's probably some envy in my write-up, but the book just did not move me.


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