This is a different sort of book from what I usually read nowadays, and from what is generally being written at the moment. It is a quiet book, with no quarrels, shootings, drugs or even love affairs. It is contemplative (I usually hate that word in relation to a book, but this one truly made me contemplate) and slow.
Tinkers won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction last year and – there’s hope for all us unpublished writers out there – Harding’s book was rejected many times by publishing houses for not being ‘fast’ enough or reflective of modern life. After three years, a small publishing house, Bellevue Literary Press, printed it and it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. When, of course, Random House jumped up out of nowhere and grabbed Paul Harding before you could say ‘he’s ours’. Greedy buggers.
Nothing much happens in this book, at all. An old man, George Crosby, is dying in a hospital bed that’s been put in the dining room of his house. His family has gathered to say goodbye to him, though death is slow in coming. It is during these days and hours of dying that we get to know George’s past and his life as a clock repairer. His memories emerge while his mind collapses through hallucinations, brought on by slow organ failure.
We learn his taciturn father, Howard, who was a itinerant peddler – a tinker – and spent his days travelling through the backwoods of Maine selling his wares to the poor. His horse is, unexpectedly, called Prince Edward. He sold pots and pans, soap powder, everyday goods, but also landed up having to perform other services, which included cutting hair, pulling a drowned body out of a lake, and pulling a rotten tooth out of a recluse’s mouth.
Howard was also an epileptic, a fact that was hidden from his children for as long as possible, until George – as the eldest child – had to help his mother stop his father from biting his tongue during a fit. The epilepsy is dealt with with shame and silence, and eventually George’s mother plans to send Howard to an mental asylum, at which time Howard goes out one day with Prince Edward and never returns. He starts a life elsewhere and marries again.
Harding describes the onset of the fits in minute detail, as well as the landscape through which Howard travels daily. He writes poetic prose, with sentences that are sometimes longer than a page – something which the younger generation would be incapable of reading. They would be too impatient and I nearly was as well.
I had to concentrate hard when reading this book, something I am not used to doing nowadays. I do think we’re losing our capacity to concentrate on longer pieces of writing in the digital age. This book is slow work, also hard work. It jumps around through time and memories, from George, to Howard, to excerpts about clock repair (when last did you read the word ‘horologist’?). The hallucinatory sections can be confusing.
But I believe this book is worth reading. It’s not often you get to read a book like this nowadays. It is unusual, poetic, mesmerising and might well become a classic, like To Kill A Mockingbird. Just don’t read it late at night, because you won’t be able to concentrate on those epic page-long sentences.