Prepare to be seduced
FICTION: EILEEN BATTERSBYreviews TinkersBy Paul Harding, Heinemann, 191pp, £12.99
SOMETIMES A NOVEL beguiles from the opening sentence. Paul Harding’s seductive Pulitzer-winning debut does precisely that in a rare narrative of laconic grace and philosophical practicality. “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.” These hallucinations are vivid excursions into memory – memories of his ordered adult life but also snapshots from his father’s very different, improvisational experiences – and through them he breathes the humour, the grief, the overwhelming, if discreet, humanity of his subtle, fluid art.
Father and son offer variations on tinkering in the sense of it as a hobby and as an ancient occupation. George in retirement repaired clocks; Howard, his father, a man of an earlier time, deferred to the more traditional notion of tinker as a travelling tradesman. “Besides fixing pots and selling soap, these are some of the things that Howard did at one time or another on his rounds, sometimes to earn extra money, mostly not: shoot a rabid dog, deliver a baby, put out a fire, pull a rotten tooth, cut a man’s hair, sell five gallons of homemade whiskey for a backwoods’ bootlegger named Potts, fish a drowned child from a creek.”
This little novel is a wonder; its tone, poised between the conversational and the formal, is quietly insistent. Characters embark on journeys; they all have secrets. Not only has Harding written a life story re-created through a series of dream-like flashbacks; he also demonstrates the exciting possibilities of narrative through his use of time shifts, wordplay, voices and changing viewpoints. His choice of words is emphatic, precise and physical. Most of all, he looks to the twists chance creates. While a father and son who never really knew each other engage and separate early in the son’s life, the prism of an entire world emerges – and with it images of the US spanning most of the 20th century – while summoning the era of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The grace of it appears so effortless; it is easy to overlook the technical skill, the shimmering movements and the use of clockwork mechanisms as a device. The story and the stories within it flow like water over stones.
In the opening sequence Harding introduces a mind beginning to flicker as the slow process of dying approaches its ritual conclusion. Lying in state in his living room in a rented hospital bed, George is old, fading out. As he awaits death there are echoes, perhaps intended, of Beckett’s feisty Malone. George’s thoughts are divided between memory and fears for a future that no longer concerns him. His life’s project, the house he built, is, he feels, about to collapse. He hears the windows, now loose in their sashes, about to shatter. “Pollen and sparrows, rain and the intrepid squirrels he had spent half of his life keeping out of the bird feeders would breach the house.” His family – wife, daughters, grandchildren – has gathered. Harding sets the scene as if it were a theatrical event, or a type of pageant. George’s final hours are ticking by; memory begins to hurry itself. There is a story to be told and not much time left. “Nearly seventy years before George died, his father, Howard Aaron Crosby, drove a wagon for his living. It was a wooden wagon.”
Harding’s attention to detail is that of the traditional storyteller. He begins with a sketch, then fills it in to create lasting images. Ironically, although deeper into the past than even old George, Howard emerges as the defining presence. His abrupt exit from George’s boyhood only consolidated Howard’s presence. George has his memories, his projects and his family, but it was his father, the son of a Methodist preacher lost to madness, who experienced the full range of existence.
Among the many set pieces is Howard’s relationship with Gilbert, a Latin-chanting hermit to whom he brought twice-yearly supplies. Some of the locals believed Gilbert lived in a tree house “of some sort”. No one could figure out how the old hermit survived apparently on air. He was a college graduate and liked to boast about being a classmate of Hawthorne’s. “Although he would have to be nearly 120 years old for the rumour to be true, no one cared to refute the claim, because they found it too delightful to dispel the notion.” Howard and Gilbert enjoyed an understanding based on empathy, not words. It was Gilbert’s tooth that Howard had pulled on the hermit’s mute request. “Stepping closer, Gilbert opened his mouth and, Howard squinting to get a good look, saw in that dank, ruined purple cavern, stuck way in the back of an otherwise-empty levy [sic] of gums, a single black tooth planted in a swollen and bright red throne of flesh. A breeze caught the hermit’s breath and Howard gasped and saw visions of slaughter-houses and dead pets under porches.” Late in the novel, when the sadness of Howard’s personal struggle with an illness that made him choose exile to avoid being cast out by his wife has become central to the narrative’s fabric, Harding allows Howard to recall, as if in turn, his equally troubled father, the preacher. “It seemed to me as if my father,” reflects Howard, “simply faded away. He became more and more difficult to see. One day, I thought he was sitting in his chair at his desk, writing. To all appearances, he scribbled at a piece of paper. When I asked him where the bag for apple picking was, he disappeared.” Something sacred and strange and wise beyond belief, beyond mere understanding itself, sustains Harding’s tale of one man’s death travels deep into the mystery of life and living.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times