The clock is still ticking

Tinkers
Paul Harding
William Heinemann; £12.99

ON A rented hospital bed in the living room of the house he built himself, George Washington Crosby lies dying. While George has lived a full life, first as a teacher and then as a repairer of antique clocks, it is not to this that his mind turns. In his final hours, George wants to conjure up his father again.

Seventy years earlier, Howard Crosby was a hustler, driving a wooden wagon through the backwoods of Maine. He sold soap, string and tobacco to housewives and woodsmen, and he tinkered for pennies on the side. “Tin pots, wrought iron, solder-melted and cupped in a clay dam,” his mastery of practical things jars with the epilepsy that diminishes his mental and physical control.

Tinkers is an elegiac prose poem in praise of these two men and the lives they touched.

The author, Paul Harding, is a graduate of the highly regarded Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and his prose is contemplative and studied.

His language is elegant and heartfelt, even lovely, as when he describes George’s horology, “the mysterious, agonising, glacial, undramatic doings of antique clock repair.” A pleasure to read is the description of the surgically precise, sensual process of dismantling a timepiece: “Lift off the back of the clock like the lid of a treasure chest. Bring the long-armed jeweller’s lamp closer, to just over your shoulder. Examine the dark brass. See the pinions gummed up with dirt and oil. Look at the blue and purple ripples of metal hammered, bent, torched … ”

Such details suffuse the novel, texturing not just the props and backdrops, but also Harding’s characters. The author uses vivid imagery to tell the lives of George and Howard. A single, black tooth is “planted in a swollen and bright red throne of flesh”; the spark and tingle of a seizure is “the raw stuff of the cosmos”. Harding has a knack for the poetic, and only occasionally does this slip into affectation.

A brief, meditative book, Tinkers has garnered much attention since it was awarded this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction, yet it is not the wonder it has breathlessly been made out to be. Yes, it is accomplished literary writing — all the more so for being a debut — but it is a conventional story, or stories, as George and Howard’s narratives proceed independently for much of the novel, interrupted by a long section chronicling Howard’s father, which feels like a loss of focus on Harding’s part.

The book’s strength lies not in plot but in its experiential powers, in its celebration of New England life and of father/son relationships. The down-and-out Howard is wonderfully drawn, a sad tramper who suspects his wife wants to have him institutionalised. George is less so, although a conniving streak becomes apparent towards the end, one which breathes fresh life into this dying character.

Hemingway wrote that “all stories, if continued long enough, end in death, and he is no true storyteller who would keep that from you”. Harding follows this tenet with a twist; George’s demise is announced in the first sentence. Death is an opportunity to tell his story, and his exit, when it comes, is movingly rendered.


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