BY NICO VREELAND
Author: Paul Harding
Bellevue Literary Press, 2009
Filed under: Literary
Tinkers is an extremely well written book. Its sentences and paragraphs are beautiful and precise, and a pleasure to read.
The plot and story of it, though, don’t stand out the way the language does. Tinkers is an excellent book to read slowly and savor, like a book of poetry. It’s not one to plow through in a day, and it’s not a page-turner that will keep you up late; however, it’s definitely worth the time.
The premise of Tinkers is pretty simple. It’s a deathbed story, featuring George—a grandfather about to die—remembering his father Howard, a tinker and tradesman who drove a wooden wagon to provision remote farms. Oddly, George spends so much time thinking about his father that the narrative pulls itself into Howard’s head so he can think about his own father for a while, too.
Besides general reminiscing, there’s not exactly a narrative arc. The story comes more in the form of vignettes, which might be about times or moods or events, vignettes that generally revolve around the experience of eking out a life in a hardscrabble rural wilderness.
As I mentioned, this book’s best feature is its writing. Take, for example, this magnificent sentence, in which Howard gives a mental sales pitch for the kind of jewelry nobody ever buys from him:
He thought, Buy the pendant, sneak it into your hand from the folds of your dress and let the low light of the fire lap at it late at night as you wait for the roof to give out or your will to snap and the ice to be too thick to chop through with the ax as you stand in your husband’s boots on the frozen lake at midnight, the dry hack of the blade on ice so tiny under the wheeling and frozen stars, the soundproof lid of heaven, that your husband would never stir from his sleep in the cabin across the ice, would never hear and come running, half-frozen, in only his union suit, to save you from chopping a hole in the ice and sliding into it as if it were a blue vein, sliding down into the black, silty bottom of the lake, where you would see nothing, would perhaps feel only the stir of some somnolent fish in the murk as the plunge of you in your wool dress and the big boots disturbed it from its sluggish winter dreams of ancient seas.
Whew. Yeah. And the passage goes on from there to a spine-tingling finale.
Harding also delivers a few tense, riveting scenes, such as an account of Howard’s epilepsy. But do not read this book for extended drama, because Harding is just as apt to bore you with an excruciating, page-long description of a cribbage game (I even play cribbage; I’m not sure if that made it better or worse), or little details painfully swollen with meaning. Such as this:
A crop of mushrooms had somehow grown overnight in the grass next to Howard beneath the cart. He examined them and was slightly alarmed at how large they had grown from nothing in such a short time and in such cold.
That’s a bit too loud a detail for me, shrieking for you to notice it and write an essay in English class dissecting its thematic significance.
Ultimately, this novel is like that mushroom passage or the cribbage game: it’s beautiful but not that compelling. It’s enjoyable and, sure, there’s meaning in it (because there’s meaning in everything, especially well-written things), but it doesn’t carry a lot of drama, and it’s not really the masterpiece (except stylistically) that it was hyped as.
Read it for the beautiful writing, but don’t expect too much else.