He tinkered. Tin pots, wrought iron. Solder melted and cupped in a clay dam. Quicksilver patchwork. Occasionally, a pot hammered back flat, the tinkle of tin sibilant, tiny beneath the lid of the boreal forest. Tinkerbird, coppersmith, but mostly a brush and mop drummer. – from Tinkers, page 12 –
George Washington Crosby is eight days from death on the opening page of Tinkers – he is hallucinating and remembering, he is pondering his life and the life of his father. George has spent his life fixing clocks – and time plays a crucial role in this novel about fathers and sons, and connections with others. While George lays dying from cancer, he reflects on the small things which have made up his life, including the house he has lovingly built and the intricate details of clock repair.
Read the names etched onto the works: Ezra Bloxham – 1794; Geo. E. Tiggs – 1832; Thos. Flatchbart – 1912. Lift the darkened works from the case. Lower them into ammonia. Lift them out, nose burning, eyes watering, and see them shine and star through your tears. File the teeth. Punch the bushings. Load the spring. Fix the clock. Add your name. – from Tinkers, page 15 –
But Tinkers is not just George’s story…it is the story of three interconnected generations of men: George’s father Howard (an epileptic), and Howard’s father who suffered from dementia. Narrated alternatively between these three points of view, the story is nonlinear.
Howard is a dreamer and a tinker, a man who relishes the beauty of nature and spends whole days picking wildflowers and constructing art from twigs and grass. His seizures come when he least expects them, and eventually tear apart his fragile marriage. George’s memories of Howard are of a father often mysteriously late coming home, and one frightening episode of Howard seizing at Christmas dinner.
Howard’s father is a minister whose slow descent into dementia confuses his son who describes his father as ‘a strange, gentle man.‘ Howard’s loss of his father mirrors George’s loss of Howard.
Harding’s prose is like reading a long, narrative poem. Beautifully constructed sentences and stories within stories characterize Tinkers. Often the story feels like water in a river – rippled, unpredictable, dipping around corners and eddying around obstructions…and so, Harding’s use of water as a symbol in the novella seems appropriate.
The overriding themes of Harding’s Pulitzer Prize winning effort are that of time passing, the dreams of men, and the passage from life to death.
What of miniature boats constructed of birch bark and fallen leaves, launched onto cold water clear as air? How many fleets were pushed out toward the middles of ponds or sent down autumn brooks, holding treasures of acorns, or black feathers, or a puzzled mantis? Let those grassy crafts be listed alongside the iron hulls that cleave the sea, for they are all improvisations built from the daydreams of men, and all will perish, whether from ocean siege or October breeze. – from Tinkers, page 78 –
I enjoyed this slim book whose size belies the depth of the prose. This is a beautiful story which reads more like a meditation than a novel. Full of lyrical phrases, it is not always an easy book to understand, and yet it is a deeply satisfying read.
Readers who are not intimidated by literary novels which use symbolism and metaphor liberally to explore deeper issues, will want to read Tinkers. This is a novel which left me thinking about the characters long after I turned the final page.