I want to dig beneath the surface of the prominent best-seller lists to mine for literary gold. That means paying close attention to what the independent booksellers are offering and familiarizing myself with much smaller publishing houses. This change of focus is opening up so many fresh reading possibilities for me and it is how I came upon tinkers, by debut author Paul Harding. At the time I selected tinkers, I somehow missed the fact that it had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2010. The unassuming paperback that arrived on my hold shelf at the Excelsior library was an original edition, printed prior to the book’s selection—it did not carry that coveted burst on its front cover. Had I read Amazon reviews on the book, I would have learned of its prize-winning stature. Very rarely do I read Amazon reviews.
tinkers is published by Bellevue Literary Press, which began in 2005 as a project of the New York University School of Medicine. The mission of this non-profit press is to explore the intersection of art, humanity and science.
Reading this work of literature, for it should be considered literature, was a worthwhile exercise —a literary stretch one should take periodically to keep the brain fit. However, many readers will totter on a dizzying precipice that is the structure of this book. Some of us will fall back onto the meadow near the cliff’s edge with the book safely in hand. Others will eventually lean forward and toss the book into the abyss, unable to accept the craftsmanship of the author.
There is literary license, and there is flagrant disregard for the rules. The liberties Mr. Harding takes with language, punctuation, and style are infuriating while at the same time provocative. For those of us with an orthodox education in composition, we grit our teeth as we fight off contempt for his impunity. I even had a difficult time getting past the title with its lowercase t. Commas were overworked–leaving me exhausted as I absorbed marathon paragraphs of sensory swelling imagery. Mr. Harding even treats quotation marks with absolute disdain, opting out of using them altogether with his dialogue. However, despite this arrogance, I did find myself on that meadow.
To say this book is a flashback seems simplistic, yet that is the framework by which Mr. Harding constructs his story. He takes this familiar narrative device and transforms it into something fresh, unpredictable, and effective. The book spans the final eight days in the life of one George Washington Crosby. He is an average man who has lived an ordinary life. He is dying of a common disease and is surrounded by an unremarkable family. I give nothing away with this disclosure. His pending death is a certainty that is established from the outset.
It is the non-linear journey of looking backwards that makes this story so remarkable, though it challenges your senses as a reader since you are charged with piecing George’s life together across a randomized spectrum of disconnected time. Mr. Harding interrupts his narrative throughout by inserting detailed descriptions of clock types, gear mechanisms, repair techniques and sounds which seem to mock George’s lifelong obsession with clocks and his need to control the passage of time and even his own death. Again, this is the author’s license. You will either accept it, or you will not.
Initially, it seemed implausible that I could come to know the characters with any real intimacy. But eventually the disconnected became connected, and the story revealed itself with a satisfying fullness. And in those eight days we spend with George on his deathbed, we travel within his thoughts and through his past, experiencing the stigma of mental illness, the heart-numbing rejection of family, blind faith, redemptive love and simple death.
This is a fearless effort from a confident author who takes innumerable risks and succeeds. It is no surprise that this notable book received the nod from the Pulitzer committee.