When New England writer Paul Harding's novel Tinkers was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in April, it had the makings of the feel-good story of the literary season. Tinkers was, after all, a debut novel from a largely unknown writer, published by a relatively new small press, winning arguably the most prestigious prize in American letters. The last small press novel to win the Pulitzer? John Kennedy Toole's posthumous Confederacy of Dunces, in 1981.
The story got better: the novel had been rejected by numerous publishers, and had spent several years in a drawer before it was purchased by Bellevue Literary Press, a non-profit publisher associated with New York University, for a tiny advance and with a minuscule initial print run. While Tinkers received positive reviews, the novel was championed, in the main, by independent booksellers, who were responsible for selling about 15,000 copies prior to the Pulitzer win and, more importantly, were crucial to the book being noticed by the Pulitzer committee in the first place.
The best part of the this literary Cinderella story? The novel itself is fantastic, and well-deserving of the prize.
George Washington Crosby is dying. In his late seventies, he lies motionless, largely incoherent, in a "rented hospital bed, placed in the middle of his own living room," surrounded by his family. Tinkers is concerned with George's death, but that's not what the novel is about. Rather, Tinkers is an rendering of two lives, that of George, and his father Howard, who was a tinker in rural New England in the 1920s.
There is ample material in the novel for a rich, straightforward narrative history of the men - including Howard's epilepsy, a mysterious disappearance, a difficult marriage and the like - but Harding takes a decidedly different approach. The novel unfolds impressionistically, interweaving past and present, the real and the hallucinated, allowing strands of narrative and symbolism to accrete naturalistically, creating meaning and emotional resonance out of images and observations, rather than narrative.
The novel begins with George hallucinating, "eight days before he died." He envisions the house, which he built himself, crumbling around him. The floor gives way, dropping his bed into the basement. The ceiling cracks, then breaks, the second floor falling on him, "with its unfinished pine framing and dead-end plumbing." Then the attic and roof disappear, leaving him exposed to the sky: "The clouds halted, paused for an instant, and plummeted onto his head. The very blue of the sky followed, draining from the heights". The very universe - George's universe - comes apart in his dying, his "confused obliteration".
This bravura opening, in which everything that George has built dissolves around him, not only opens up the character, and the novel, to its ensuing shifts across time and space (unanchored now in the narrative present), into and out of George's consciousness, but it also establishes the central approach of Tinkers as a whole.
In addition to lacking a conventional narrative structure, Tinkers willfully eschews traditional character development. There is limited introspection within the novel, for example. Rather, Howard and George develop as characters through close observation of particular spheres of their respective worlds and the resulting development of metaphorical structures that illuminate their characters. Thus, the reader comes to understand the significance of the opening house/universe collapse through George's fascination with the order and stability of the antique clocks he restores. Similarly, Howard's immersion in the natural world serves as an indicator of the harmony in his life and, later, in a beautiful and harrowing scene, how that harmony is destroyed by an epileptic seizure.
Tinkers is a novel rich in close observation, short in dialogue and event. While normally this would be a cloying combination, the sharp richness of Harding's language and the precision of his descriptions makes the novel both transfixing and compelling. One is reminded of Annie Dillard at her lyrical best, but Harding brings a clarity to the work which sets it clearly apart.
This is not to say that nothing happens in Tinkers. In fact, there are a number of affecting and effective set pieces. The scene in which Howard's wife, Kathleen, takes George to the doctor after he is bitten by Howard during a seizure, is breathtaking in its visual impact. Similarly, the scene where Howard secretly watches George cremate a mouse on a birch-bark raft is beautifully understated and elegiac. The interplay between the family members at George's bedside is rich in drama and humour by turns.Those scenes, however, are fleeting moments in the novel, as they were in life. What matters most is the cumulative effect of those moments, those observations, those fragments of two lives. This is underscored, resoundingly, by the deep emotional effect of the novel's closing pages, a moment of grace, of synchronicity, of father and son, which will break your heart.
Robert Wiersema is a Victoria-based writer and bookseller. His new novel, Bedtime Story, will be published this fall.