Wound to precision

Paul Harding's Tinkers , this year's surprise Pulitzer winner
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  July 14, 2010

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SPARE BEAUTY Paul Harding’s prose.

The phrase "perfect summer beach read" doesn't make much sense to me. A week at the water is the right moment for me to put down a diverting thriller and indulge in a novel that necessitates those rarest of commodities: unencumbered time and attention.

In this regard, Paul Harding's slim Tinkers is an ideal companion on your week (or, at just under 200 pages, day) off. The author, who promoted his debut at Portsmouth's RiverRun Bookstore after its early 2009 release — before it recently became the first small-press novel to win the Pulitzer Prize since 1981 — will return to the shop on Thursday to read from the book and discuss its success.

As Tinkers begins, George Washington Crosby is just over a week from death, lying in a hospital bed in his Massachusetts home, surrounded by family, imagining his house falling in on him. In what constitutes the novel's thin plot, George's meandering thoughts guide us through his hardscrabble, Depression-era childhood in Maine, in wispy fragments juxtaposed with similar third-person impressions of his father, Howard, and those of Howard's father. If Tinkers could be said to hinge on a plot point, it's that Howard has epilepsy, which he and George's mother hide from their children for as long as possible.

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Instead of action, the vitality of Tinkers rests in observation, which both of its primary characters — George is a clock repairman; Howard peddles wares to his Maine country neighbors in a mule-pulled cart — are well suited to. Its passages come in two broad shapes: brief fits of madness, contemplation, or rapture; and relations of those small incidents, which, predicated on one's reaction to them, shape our notions of ourselves and others. Each fragment is a gear in a clock: an instrument that helps to frame our being, part of a larger mechanism that counts down, slowly but inexorably, to its end. As Howard thinks to himself at one point, "And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember: You will be dead and buried soon enough."

Loose in structure, Harding's prose is (save an early overuse of similes) a model of precision. In perhaps the novel's most affecting sequence, Howard sees his young son encountering a dead mouse on a road, and follows behind him as he wraps it in paper, constructs a small boat out of birch bark, gases and lights the coffin on fire, and sends it to a watery grave. "White moths came up from the grass at the pond's edge and fluttered out to the boat to flirt with the fire. The fire reached the matchbox and rubbed at it until it began to smoke. When the fire reached inside the box and touched the kerosene-soaked shroud, there was a bright, quiet thump and the bier was gulped in flame. The birch crackled and spat sparks." The sequence foreshadows George's solemn acceptance of death, and is one of few instances of tender familial observation in the book. As such, the silence underlying it speaks volumes.

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