Thursday, October 7, 2010

book review: Tinkers by Paul Harding

TinkersThe backstory: Tinkers won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The basics: George Washington Crosby, a clock repairer,  is dying, and his family has gathered around his bedside. From his deathbed, he recalls his life as he drifts in and out of the present.

My thoughts: Tinkers is a language lover's novel. Harding wowed me with his words. Every word seemed simultaneously urgent, subtle and intentional. I admire a writer bold enough to use parentheses within parentheses. George Washington Crosby is simultaneously a reliable and unreliable narrator. He is not totally aware of what is happening around him as he lies waiting to die, but his memories are real:
"George Crosby remembered many things as he died, but in an order he could not control. To look at his life, to take the stock he always imagined a man would at his end, was to witness a shifting mass, the tiles of a mosaic spinning, swirling, reportraying, always in recognizable swaths of colors, familiar elements, molecular units, intimate currents, but also independent now of his will, showing him a different self every time he tried to make an assessment."
This novel is a reflection on life and how we remember it. It's a collection of ponderings ordinary and deep, and sometimes both:
"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."
That sentence will either give you chills or prompt you to skim through the sea of commas. If you're the latter, this novel will dazzle you.

Ultimately, it is a story of the precipice of life: 
"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 metaphor of clocks runs deep in this novel, and I daresay it has caused me to pause when I hear the previously simple ticking of a clock because of passages like this one:
"George said, Okay, okay, and the blood in his veins and the breath in his chest seemed to go easier as he heard the ratchet and click of the springs being wound and the rising chorus of clocks, which did not seem to him to tick but to breathe and to give one another comfort by merely being in one another's presence, like a gathering of people at a church dinner or at a slide show held in the local library. "
Not since Edgar Allan Poe's "A Tell-Tale Heart" has sound been so evocative in literature for me. At some point, I stopped highlighting every variation on tinker I encountered. I can't imagine the novel having another name, and I imagine I may have taken longer to pick up on the persistence of that theme if it did. Instead, I reveled in this sentence early on in the novel:

"Next fell the stars, tinkling about him like the ornaments of heaven shaken loose."
Yes, this novel is about George Washington Crosby, but thankfully, Harding lets other character's shine too:
"When his wife touched his legs at night in bed, through his pajamas, she thought of oak or maple and had to make herself think of something else in order not to imagine going down to his workshop in the basement and getting sandpaper and stain and sanding his legs and staining them with a brush, as if they belonged to a piece of furniture. Once, she snorted out loud, trying to stifle a laugh, when she thought, My husband, the table. She felt so bad afterward that she wept."
The verdict: Tinkers is not a universally appealing novel, but it is a brilliant one. Harding's mastery of language and character are mesmerizing. This little novel carries immense heft and will linger for quite some time. I've included more of Harding's words than my own in this review. It's a powerful novel, yet it's immensely readable. Different readers will linger on different passages, and I imagine it's a novel whose layers will continue to emerge through re-reading. I'm thrilled Tinkers won the Pulitzer Prize this year because I likely would never have discovered it on my own.

Rating:  4.5 stars (out of 5)
Length: 192 pages
Publication date: January 1, 2009
Source: I bought it in on my Kindle when the Pulitzers were announced in April and finally managed to read it.

As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!


  1. You enjoyed this one a lot more than I did. I agree that the writing was wonderful and I did linger on individual passages, but I didn't enjoy the novel as a whole - I didn't feel any connection to the characters and wasn't moved by it. Too gentle for me :-(

  2. Parentheses within parentheses.... is that even allowed?!? LOL! I love it! This sounds like an amazing novel... I will definitely pick it up based on your review!!

  3. I have been curious about this book since it came out, and your review is the best one I have seen so far. I think you have enticed me towards grabbing this one very soon, as I love evocative language and those passages you quoted were just beautiful. Thanks for the excellent review!

  4. I really don't think that this book is for me. I will probably pass.

  5. @farmlanebooks It certainly isn't a book for everyone, but I'm sorry it didn't work for you!

    @Jenny - I hope you enjoy it!

    @Zibilee - I will look forward to reading your thoughts on this one!

  6. This is one book I am really eager to read. Really awesome review! I love books whose authors can wow you with their words.


Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!