Tinkers, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is Paul Harding’s debut novel. It is complex yet simple: an elegant book. Harding’s language is painterly, lyrical. The characters and the landscape are sketched with great precision and attention to detail, but also with great affection. Words carry poetic weight. The preciseness of his language has the effect of slowing you down, making you listen and observe closely. There is stillness at its center – a sense of being completely in the moment.
The slim book is 191 pages long, and spans only the last eight days in George’s life; but it is “… a great oak of a book” (Kecia Lynn in 2009 interview with Harding). I would also call it deeply rooted. Its influences range from American Transcendentalism to Jazz Rhythms. It encompasses not just eight days but distant time beyond memory: “I was just thinking that I am not very many years old, but that I am a century wide. I think that I have my literal age, but am surrounded in a radius of years.” (p. 159)
The most difficult, and yet compelling, aspects of this book are its omnipresence (the story being in many times and places at the same time) and the dense precision of Harding's prose. In his 2008 interview with Dave Weich of Powell's Books, Harding reflects on an essential paradox – that we are often led to deeper mysteries about what it means to be human through very detailed, concrete writing: "… where, by going deeper into reality, you end up transcending it in some way."
Some have found the lack of a clearly defined plot challenging. It is. The first and longest of the four chapters requires letting go of the normal order of things. This is intentional. Harding doesn’t let you wade in gradually, but plunges immediately into deep waters – to the story’s inner core. It is a deep plunge – but also slow – as we experience the confusion of George’s tangled memories: “George Crosby remembered many things as he died but in an order he could not control. To look at his life, to take the stock he always imagined a man would at his end, was to witness a shifting mass, the tiles of a mosaic spinning, swirling, reportraying, always in recognizable swaths of colors, familiar elements, molecular units, intimate currents, but also independent now of his will, showing him a different self every time he tried to make an assessment.” (p. 18). In both the first and last chapters, we are continually interrupted by visitors at George’s bedside, six Borealis passages from Howard’s old journal, four essays on time, clocks and civilization by The Reasonable Horologist, and the shifting memories from George’s past.
In the two middle chapters, characters reveal their life stories – but in a more linear form. George narrates the story of his life and family; Howard narrates his story. There is tension in both lives: the age-old conflict between order and chaos; between lives controlled and those fraught with uncertainty. Howard is a poet and a dreamer with unmanageable epilepsy; George gives order to his life as a teacher of mechanical drawing and restorer of clocks. As Harding remarked in his interview with Dave Weich: “On the most basic level, given the chaotic nature of George's early life, losing his father, being impoverished – there would be something reassuring about not only the regularity and orderliness of clocks but also their mendability.”
And, with all of this, there is a longing to be at peace in this world “that is full of strife”.
George’s mother imposes strict order on her household, convinced that “it is not man’s lot to be at ease in this world and that if she took a day off every time she had a sniffle or a stiff neck, the house would unravel around them all and they would be like birds with no nest.” Howard and George find ways to create order in their lives as well. George teaches physics and repairs clocks. Howard, as a Tinker, realizes that ”…what he sat upon, the swaying cart full of products for cleaning, scrubbing, patching, organizing, maintaining domestic life, was a house.” Later, in Philadelphia, he takes great pleasure in his job at the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea company, "...fitting boxes and jars and bottles and cans and the meat snugly in butcher paper, stringed tight..."
All three men – George, Howard and Howard’s father – ultimately accept the unruly and unpredictable nature of this world. Howard understands it as part of God’s grace; his father, the minister, rants against man’s attempts to contain it (“Cease your filibuster against the world God gave you”). The final chapter brings – if not tidy resolution – peace for George, as his time on earth draws to a close. He has reassembled, and reconnected with, his past: with his father, his childhood, his family, with his place in the living universe. The ruin, the splintered shards, the uncertainty, the unease in his heart – gone.