George Crosby, the hero of Paul Harding’s Pulitzer Prize-winning first novel, Tinkers, has been laid out to die on a rented hospital bed in his living-room, surrounded by his wife, children and grandchildren. He is 80, a retired teacher and clock repairer, and is suffering from cancer and renal failure. In the last week of his life he begins to hallucinate about his childhood in rural Maine. His father, Howard, was a travelling salesman and odd-job man until he abandoned his family one day in 1927. George, who has never understood the reasons for his father’s desertion, has led a conventionally contented life marred by a sense of loss.
Tinkers is less interested in telling a story than in developing a set of perceptions; it gains its traction from its form and style, its continually expanding view. Its models are Whitman’s rhapsodic long line and Hawthorne’s fascination with ancestral guilt and expiation (The Scarlet Letter makes a cameo appearance early on). Its method is signalled from the first pages, when the dying George, delirious, imagines his house tumbling about his bed, a wholesale destruction that sweeps away the ‘constraints of time and memory’:
There he lay among the graduation photos and old wool jackets and rusted tools and newspaper clippings about his promotion to head of the mechanical-drawing department at the local high school, and then about his appointment as director of guidance, and then about his retirement and subsequent life as a trader and repairer of antique clocks. The mangled brass works of the clocks he had been repairing were strewn among the mess.
Then ‘the roof collapsed, sending down a fresh avalanche of wood and nails, tarpaper and shingles and insulation’: the lid has come off George’s world. And the novel has been set free to spiral inwards, untrammelled by chronology (those ‘mangled brass works of the clocks … strewn among the mess’). The facts of George’s life – career, marriage, children – are dealt with in a few short sentences right at the start; Harding’s real concern is with memory, and the journeys the mind can take even when the body has almost no life left.
The still point at the centre of the novel’s shifting perspectives is Howard’s desertion of his family. He was not just a tinker but something of a poet too, and his lyrical, elliptical observations on the landscape, people and places he encounters on his travels are interleaved with George’s memories. It’s immediately apparent that mild, dreamy Howard is painfully unsuited to his job as a travelling salesman. Harding is good at suggesting the narrowness of backwoods life, its hardscrabble evangelical fervour. Howard’s lack of enthusiasm on the sales front is an occasional source of wry comedy, such as when his supplier harangues him with a parable about Jesus as the founder of modern business:
He was the most popular dinner guest in Jerusalem. He picked up 12 men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an organisation that conquered the world! How are you going to be one of my 12, Crosby, if you can’t sell, if you are not on fire to sell?
Howard is more interested in contemplating ‘the secret recipe of the forest and the light and the dark’, something ‘far too fine and subtle to be observed with my blunt eye’.
His fugue states are symptoms of a more serious problem: he has epilepsy. His epiphanic moments precede terrifying seizures in which he is ‘split open from the inside by lightning’ and has to be restrained. Howard’s father, too, was susceptible to obsessive, dissociative spells. A clergyman given to long, trancelike sermons ‘enumerating practically every crawling, swimming, flying beast he could and reiterating that it, too, was as important as any other of God’s creations’, he became increasingly disconnected from other people:
Hands, teeth, gut, thoughts even, were all simply more or less convenient to human circumstance, and as my father was receding from human circumstance, so, too, were all of these particulars, back to some unknowable froth where they might be reassigned to be stars or belt buckles, lunar dust or railroad spikes. Perhaps they already were all of these things and my father’s fading was because he realised this.
The men in the Crosby family may be sensitive to the value of these moments of transcendence, but their womenfolk are not. Howard’s father is sent to an asylum by Howard’s mother, and Howard’s wife, Kathleen, conceals his seizures even from their children. ‘Howard had assumed that their silence over his fits, over everything, stood for his gratefulness to her and her loyalty to him. He had assumed their silence was one of kindness offered and accepted.’
But then one Christmas, when George is ten, Howard has a seizure at the dinner table and almost bites his son’s fingers off. Once her husband’s illness is out in the open it transpires that Kathleen Crosby’s silence sprang not from forbearance but from bitterness. Harding’s depiction of Kathleen is powerfully suggestive of tight-lipped outrage, but she is one of the most inscrutable characters in the book – we rarely see things from her point of view. Silence is Kathleen’s weapon of choice: without a word, she puts a brochure for ‘Northern and Eastern Maine’s care facility for the insane and feebleminded’ on her dresser for Howard to find. Realising that she means to have him committed like his father, Howard leaves. He reinvents himself as a grocer in North Philadelphia, and marries a garrulous woman who ‘spoke words out loud as she thought them up’. Leaving Maine, he thinks:
Light changes, our eyes blink and see the world from the slightest difference of perspective and our place in it has changed infinitely: Sun catches cheap plate flaking – I am a tinker; the moon is an egg glowing in its nest of leafless trees – I am a poet; a brochure for an asylum is on the dresser – I am an epileptic, insane; the house is behind me – I am a fugitive. 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.
There is a sense in which the whole of Tinkers is preoccupied with seeing, with the shifts in perspective that illuminate the past, or other people. Yet though the novel’s circular time scheme and telescoping reminiscences contain tantalising echoes and patterns, they do not yield closure. There is a reunion of sorts between George and Howard, but it comes late and is achingly incomplete. Frequent excerpts from a (fictitious) clock-repairer’s manual belonging to George, called The Reasonable Horologist by ‘the Rev. Kenner Davenport, 1783’, provide ironic commentary:
For is it not true that our universe is a mechanism consisting of celestial gears, spinning ball bearings, solar furnaces, all co-operating to return man … to that chosen hour we know of from the Bible as Before the Fall? … It is that simple, dear reader, that logical and that elegant.
Alas, as Harding knows, it isn’t. In spite of the vigour of the novel’s language, its lexical abundance, its whole thrust is away from pat meanings, from specious coherence. George’s dead body is ‘fussed over and mourned’ by his family like the case of a clock that has had ‘its lead weights lowered for the last, irreparable time’, but this is ‘as meaningless to him now as it would have been to one of his clocks’. George had once thought his father ‘was like a spring in a clock when it breaks and explodes when he had his fits. But he was not like a clock or at least was only like a clock to me. But to himself? Who knows?’
Tinkers takes an uncompromising look at the complex emotional geometry that exists between parents and children. ‘Whenever George saw his father in the house, he had to keep from crying at being so angry for having a mad father whom he loved and pitied and hated.’ Kathleen ‘has never recovered from the shock of becoming a wife and then a mother. She is still dismayed every morning when she first sees her children, peaceful, sleeping, in their beds when she goes to wake them, that as often as not the feeling she has is one of resentment, of loss.’
One winter, a backwoods man called Tom Budden goes ‘berserk’ and sets fire to his family home. ‘The hack marks in the door were not from Budden. They were from the volunteer firemen and neighbours … who had tried to chop their way through to get to Mrs Budden and the children.’ But the charred bodies on the Buddens’ burnt-out double bed do not belong to Mrs Budden and her children: they turn up from a nearby town, where they have been paying a visit, just as the funeral preparations are underway. ‘No one had ever figured out who that woman and those children were who had been sleeping in the Budden house.’ Who is this woman in my bed? Who is this man? As a metaphor for the essential unknowability of parents, spouses, children, the terrible sense of disconnection that can dawn even after years of apparently uneventful family life, this can hardly be bettered.