A year ago I got through fifty pages of this book and quit in bored frustration. But its alluring squareness kept nagging at a little corner of my brain, and I gathered my will to finish it a year later.
And I'm still not quite sure what I think about it.
On one hand, it's full of superb writing, smartly constructed prose, quite lovely memorably fascinating passages. Whatever I may think about the plot or the characters or the narrative passing, there is no denying that Paul Harding sure knows how to yield a pen (or a typewriter, or a computer keyboard, or a smartphone - whatever he chooses to compose on).
"And as the ax bites into the wood, be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it. And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember: You will be dead and buried soon enough."
The ideas this little square book tackles are also profound enough and quite literary - thus the Pulitzer. It's the memory and identity and life as seen through dying, and dreams and pain and inevitable disappointments and humiliations, and the family relationships that define our complicated selves. Especially those of fathers and sons (once immortalized by Turgenev's Fathers and Sons), full of hurt and pain, unexpected love and tenderness, and - hopefully - that one final moment of understanding.
"But after a handful of such stories, he began to talk about his father and his mother, his brother, Joe, and his sisters, about taking night courses to finish school and about becoming a father. He talked about blue snow and barrels of apples and splitting frozen wood so brittle that it rang when you split it. He talked about what it is like to be a grandparent for the first time and to think about what it is you will leave behind when you die. By the time the tape ran out an hour and a half later (after he had flipped it over once, almost without being conscious of doing so), and the RECORD button sprang up with a buzz, he was openly weeping and lamenting the loss of this world of light and hope."
Oh yes, the unexpected beauty of simplest things in life and the beauty and pain of family are the driving force behind Tinkers.
"When his grandchildren had been little, they had asked if they could hide inside the clock. Now he wanted to gather them and open himself up, and hide them among his ribs and faintly ticking heart."
We start the story introduced to George Crosby, an old man dying from cancer, surrounded by family, experiencing his house (a symbol of his life, perhaps?) crumbling around him in semi-delirious hallucinations interspersed with moments of touching clarity that fill the reader with the sense of deep sorrow for a man whose life is just about over, whose dignity at this point is a questionable point, whose family is around in this semi-apologetic awkwardness of those who get to keep on living.
"When he realized that the silence by which he had been confused was that of all of his clocks having been allowed to wind down, he understood that he was going to die in the bed where he lay."
George, a clock-repairmen in his retirement, reflects on his father, Howard Crosby - the titular tinker of the 1920s backwoods, equipped with a cart, a mule, a list of items for sale and a soul of a poet or an artist trapped in a tinker's existence - and burdened with his dark secret: epilepsy which he hides from his children, a wife who is quiet and resilient and, as Howard eventually comes to see, resentful, as well as his son George whom he loves but who is deeply traumatized having had his father bite his hand during one of his grand mal seizures.
"His despair had not come from the fact that he was a fool; he knew he was a fool. His despair came from the fact that his wife saw him as a fool, as a useless tinker, a copier of bad verse from two-penny religious magazines, an epileptic, and could find no reason to turn her head and see him as something better."
Howard is keenly attuned to the unexpected beauty of the world, enhanced further through his surreal quite-hallucinatory pre-seizure aura experiences. But what the rest of the world sees is a tinker crippled by his disease, a burden, a symbol of life gone wrong, a source of shame. Howard rebels - even though it means leaving his family behind. And years later, his son now retired is spending time tinkering with the clocks - tinkering like his father did, with clocks symbolizing pretty much everything your sharply attuned by your college English courses peppered with meanings and symbols and literary analysis and the significance of Holden Caulfield's hunting hat.
And yet, while I appreciated the writing and the themes and such, I could not shake off the feeling that so much about this book felt - how would I phrase this? - artificial, brought together for the purpose of getting the most 'literary' meaning out of it, to make it a sort of a book that begs to be discussed in a college English course. It has the execution and the themes, but it felt it was lacking a cohesive narrative glue to bring the story together, to make the reader feel for the characters. It took me a while (a year, to be precise) to get past the point of not caring enough about the characters to be willing to continue with the story (and eventually at least Howard grew on me - but oh my, did that take time!). The clock repair manual segments interspersed throughout the book were clearly there to serve the important literary purpose - but to me had the jarring effect of pulling me out of the story and reminding me of the initial impression of smart artificialness of the story. And the characterization of Howard's wife - I could not shake off the feeling that a resentful unappreciated shrew of a wife is a device oh-too-frequently used in literature to underscore the vulnerability of a misunderstood sensitive and good male character.
So here are my final impressions: smartly crafted book with all the necessary points built in to qualify for a literary prize - but with the lack of a spark to make it fully come alive. And therefore 3.5 stars from the brain, not the heart.
But at least now I don't have its unfinished white squareness quietly and resentfully staring at me from the bookshelf.