Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Paul Harding, _Tinkers_

WASN'T SURE ABOUT our book club selection for March--Pulitzer Prize winners have been a hit-or-miss bunch for me--but Tinkers could turn out to be a minor classic.

We meet George Crosby a few days from his death; he starts thinking about his father, Howard, who left the family abruptly when George was a boy, to resurface only once and very briefly when George was an adult with children of his own.

The narrative drifts back to the season of Howard's departure, which is a bit like stepping back into the 19th century. The family lives on the edge of the woods; Howard, who ekes out a living as a tinker, has epilepsy.  His illness is rendered mainly from his own point of view, Harding taking great trouble (successfully, I think) to represent the famous "aura" through lyrical, somewhat hallucinatory prose--the effect is a bit like Emerson or Thoreau on mushrooms. These experiences, one feels, are what give Howard reason to live, yet they also make him an unreliable provider and something of a hazard around the house. He leaves when he discovers that his wife is making plans to have him institutionalized.

We drift back further to Howard's own childhood, to his own slightly dotty/otherworldly father, to his first seizure, which is almost a kind of spiritual initiation as well. More American Renaissance echoes here, as Howard's first person voice takes on tinges of Whitman's: "O Senator, drop your trousers! [...] Cease your filibuster against the world God gave you."

George does not entirely disappear from the narrative, though.  We begin to sense he is a counterweight to Howard: grounded, pragmatic, responsible, as minutely attentive to the human-made (he repairs clocks) as Howard is to the divinely-made.

As with Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, I can easily imagine slotting this into an American literature survey.  Its depiction of the natural world, of religious sensibility, of making or failing to make a living, of disconnection between generations all seem rich with our American peculiarity.

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