FINE REWARDS: John Domini on Paul Harding’s Tinkers


tinkers

Tinkers, Paul Harding, Bellevue Literary Press

Any new novel worth thinking about raises old questions, and in the case of Paul Harding’s often-impressive Tinkers, the question is—how much ecstasy can a person stand? A first novel of admirable risk and unconventionality, it begins in a kind of ecstasy with the deathbed hallucinations of George Washington Crosby. These visions by Authorial magic swiftly carry George back into the perspective of his own runaway father Howard.

George was still a boy when the father disappeared, at the turn of the previous century. That simpler America provides the setting for what action the story offers, a world of woods and farms and solitude, and the season is nearly always unstable, fall or spring. Howard gees his mule down rutted roads, now in Canada and now upstate New York, trundling through a sales route but never turning a profit. Howard struggles with a hardhearted country wife, Kathleen, and falters as a family man, never connecting with young George. The father’s core problem, we discover, isn’t his heart or his psyche but his nervous system. He suffers epilepsy, and he knows his Kathleen could never stand the shame should his children or his neighbors see him struck down by a fit.

That’s about it, for plot and tension. Of course I’m keeping my reviewer’s hand over twist or two, but I doubt the suspense in Tinkers could be spoiled. More than event, what matters is ecstasy:

Summer would anneal the chilled earth, but for now the water was so mineral and hard that it seemed to ring. Howard heard the water reverberating through the soil and around the roots. Water lay ankle-deep…. Puddles shimmered and… looked like tin cymbals. They looked as if they would ring if tapped with a stick. The puddles rang. The water rang. [64]

The ringing doesn’t stop, either; the next three lines repeat the verb twice more. Throughout, Harding’s performative prose tends to similar baroque iteration, no matter that the landscape may be wilderness. Transcendent states of mind—a few of them, like the passage above, on the verge of epileptic seizure—take the form of the winter sky-sheen behind barren trees, or of wind and insects in chorus as evening comes on. A defining forebear for this novel would be Walden, which likewise made poetry, usually affirming poetry, of woodsy detail. Tinkers at its best pulls off a re-entry into the Thoreauvian mindset, with both hunter-gatherer turmoil and horse-and-buggy challenges. It includes a spooky round of anecdotes about a mythic Indian guide.

However, the novel also whips up its rhetoric when the subject is clocks. In one list of clockmakers:

…we find a humble and motley, if determined and patient, parade…, all bent at their worktables, filing brass and calibrating gears and sketching ideas until their pencils dissolve into lead dust…, all to more perfectly transform and translate Universal Energy by perfecting the beat of the… wheel. Listen, horologist, to the names of their devices: verge, dead-beat, tic-tac… [163]

Now, this second example of Harding’s rococo doesn’t depend on repeated words, but parallel syntax. Indeed, in these pages the novel considers a different subject, not Howard but his now-dying son. George had a passion for antique clocks, and just about the only time we see the adult character in action (as opposed to the boy, defined against his troubled father), he’s repairing clocks. Then too, the lines above purport to be not George’s own but a section from an 18th-Century treatise on clocks. Tinkers interpolates a few such passages, as well as a few imitation-scientific enumerations (“Crepescule Borealis: 1. The bark of birches glows silver and white… 2. Fireflies blink in the thick grass…” [55]).

The pervading effect is contrapuntal. At one point everything’s in smithereens, a victim of family dysfunction and brain seizures, so that Howard sits helpless, “baffled by his diet of lightning,” [47] and at the next these lives are blessed by odd yet perfect assertions of wholeness, the clock in one case, the bird’s nest in another. The latter image may provide the climax, and something of a happy ending: “one’s whole countryside might be fitted out with a constellation of such nests, each holding its own special treasure.” [171] The imagistic seesaw between utter breakdown and unlikely reconstruction is impressive, and central to the mission of the Bellevue Press, which combines medical and literary exploration.

All well and good—but insofar as Harding intends a psychological drama, he disappoints. For all its verbal acrobatics, Tinkers isn’t some Oulipo exercise, in which plausible character and relationships don’t matter. So Howard and George frustrate, as father and son protagonists. They come across as little more than twinned pastiches of intense moments. The problem isn’t that such moments occur in a language far above either man’s head, a stretch that many authors bring off, but how it can bulldoze the passions under agglomerations of metaphor. Both men are unbelievable especially for their lack of anger. Howard’s affliction doesn’t appear to have left him with a mean bone in his body, nor with any drive to excel (though those traits defined history’s most famous epileptic, Julius Caesar). George, so far as we can see, grows up into an eccentric but beloved paterfamilias, entirely unscarred by a father’s abandonment and a mother’s neglect. Indeed, Kathleen’s relative nastiness comes as a relief, when she asserts herself about halfway through the narrative. At last we whiff the bracing stink of inadequacy and low motives.

Which returns us to the initial conundrum, ecstasy all the time. Do Harding’s hosannas sometime sink to preciousness? My answer would be, regrettably, yes: “and each little bee settled in a yellow cup and took suck like a newborn.” [60] Do his recurrent images ever smack of redundancy? Yes again—and yet I see no point in getting redundant myself, lowering one blow after another on so gifted, ambitious, and free-thinking a debut. The turns of phrase in Tinkers often had me whistling in envy, and overall the project blazes a new approach to historical fiction. These are fine rewards for any book, even one whose flaws demand a bit of patience.

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John Domini’s latest novel is A Tomb on the Periphery. His translation of Tullio Pironti’s memoir Books and Rough Business is now in print, and next will come a selection of essays and reviews, The Sea-God’s Herb.

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