Over the Independence Day weekend, I finished “Tinkers” by Paul Harding, one of the fiction titles on the American Library Association Notable Books list. I’d started it before, but an odd thing happened. A little over halfway through, I encountered a two-page spread that was blank. Those two pages were simply gone. I figured I could live without them, but a few page turns beyond, and another two pages were blank, in all, 16 blank pages. I decided that was too much of 191 total pages, and so awaited a better copy.
The break between starting the book, and then re-reading until I got to my previous place, was good. This is one of those books where mostly the protagonist is looking back (think of Gilead by Marilynne Robinson). Things happen, but the pace can seem awfully slow, especially if the reader wants Something To Happen. I was prepared for this.
In this case, George Crosby lies dying of kidney failure in a hospital bed in the living room of his own home, surrounded by his family. The first sentence tells that he is eight days from death, and as the book progresses, the reader learns how many hours remain. He hallucinates some, he returns to the world around him some, and he thinks about his father. Scenes from his father’s life intersperse, told not by George, but by an omniscient observer.
George’s father was a peddler early in the 1900’s. He was also an epileptic, a poet, and a magical thinker. He left George’s mother, George, his brother, and sister, when he realized that George’s mother was preparing to place him in a hospital for the mentally ill due to his seizures. He returned once just to see George, then a young married father, just to see him and say hello, not to stay, not to explain, not to re-establish the relationship. That scene of his showing up on George’s front step on a Christmas Day may be the image that I carry from this book. Something about it strikes me as especially poignant.
George himself becomes a teacher, then a counselor, and in retirement, a noted clock repairer. He clearly lives within a family sphere.
By book’s end, both men have died.
This book won the Pultizer Prize for fiction this year. Harding uses such clear language, creates such quietly intense scenes, contrasts personality against personality, and memory against present. This is a book for readers who love stories about people, who revel in language and dialogue, and who are perfectly okay when Something Does Not Happen.