Wednesday, July 28, 2010

#29: Tinkers

Tinkers gave me pause as to judging a book by its awards. My edition of Paul Harding's short novel, his first, sports a "Winner of the Pulitzer Prize" label on the front cover; I will think twice before purchasing a book based solely on such public acclaim.

This book is a classic example of the type of writing that one either embraces or shrugs at, likely with little gray area comprising the remainder. Harding has a way with words, and particularly with describing intricate details of pedestrian items. "The hair on my neck prickled from nape to crown, as if a current were passing through it, and as the current leapt off of the top of my head and if I had my back to the trees, I would feel the actual wind start up the back of my neck and ruffle my hair and the water and the grass and spin the swallows in its choral voice stirring all of the old unnamable sorrows in our throats, where our voices caught and failed on the scales of the old forgotten songs."

If you're thinking this sounds like another recent Pulitzer Prize winner, Cormac McCarthy, it's because it does. In All the Pretty Horses and The Road, McCarthy takes special delight in the bending of the grass, the hue of the twilight sky, and the trembling manes of all those pretty horses. Harding follows suit here, although to his credit he hasn't entirely neglected his punctuation or the rules of grammar in the process.

In this case, as in The Road, the central relationship is that between a father and son, although this, for the most part, is where the similarities end. Tinkers is less apocalyptic than introspective, and its setting is as mundane as The Road's is grandiose. Beginning with the simple sentence, "George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died," Harding paints a dreary image of creeping death, interspersed with winding memories of a childhood past. As George drifts in and out of consciousness, it is his father he recalls: Howard, a man tortured by sudden seizures, who, after years of indignity and humiliation, walks away from his family for Philadelphia, and a new start.

Paradoxically, while Harding takes special care to paint elaborate portrayals of material items, it is the conspicuous absence of explicitly denoted thoughts that affords the understated Tinkers its emotive impact. However, the plodding cadence of the writing gradually renders the novel viscerally unappealing. Perhaps this is to be expected of a book whose main character specializes in repairing clocks: the tick-tock of passing time is more celebrated here than dreaded. But as it pertains to reading a novel, award-winning or otherwise, I prefer my time to fly by unnoticed.

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