by Paul Harding
So much of what the blurbs on the back cover of tinkers relate is true; the novel is “elegiac”, “heartbreaking”, “compelling”. I would add meditative. Tinkers is beautiful, plain and simple, and the first sentence had me immediately: “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.” What follows is three pages of George “seeing” his house crumble around him, settling and sinking, tile by tile and brick by brick. As one whose mind nibbles around about the mystery that is death, whose husband works with hospice patients weekly, I found the descriptions of George’s death strangely comforting, although admittedly outlandish.
Harding strings the stories of George, his father Howard, and Howard’s father, the minister, like charms on a bracelet. The older men both harbor unmentionable diseases. Great grandfather slid into dementia, and slides out of Howard’s life, one day vanishing entirely. Years later, Howard, besieged with grand mal epileptic seizures, finds a brochure for a mental asylum on his wife’s dresser, and he, also, rides (quite literally) out of his son’s life. Both men wrote enigmatic observations about nature, baffling to the reader in sense–but beautiful and dream-like all the same. It is George alone who remains surrounded by his extended family at life’s end, breaking with his father and grandfather. All the men tinker in some way, Howard most literally as a rag and bone man. George tinkered with clocks and taught building trades; the minister tinkered with words. All were gypsies of a sort.
It is perhaps those lovely passages themselves that hindered me from falling headlong into tinkers. I found the passages distracting, interfering with the movement of the story. Perhaps that was Harding’s purpose? To blur the lines between narrators? Gorgeous writing. Satisfying characters. But while that may be the way of oh-so-unconventional and outre, the novel wasn’t as compelling as more traditional narratives–it kept getting in the way of the story.