Tinkers by Paul Harding
Posted on July 5, 2012
It’s summer in Cincinnati, Ohio. Today’s high is said to be 100 degrees Fahrenheit with a heat index of 110. Showers feel either like an exercise in futility, or redundant (sweat glands are nature’s shower heads, after all). Pavement seems to glower at you, releasing angry furrows of heat that seep through your soles and crawl up your legs. Everything outside becomes part of an insidious convection oven hellbent on frying the fraying threads of your patience. When considering the day’s activities, you instinctively sketch quick maps in your mind–routes of least resistance that will allow you to swiftly flow from one bubble of air conditioning to the next. And when you reach climate controlled paradise, plastered in a briny goo of suffering, you have just enough energy to settle yourself in a chair and begin reading a book.
If you’re lucky, that book will be Tinkers by Paul Harding. I picked up a copy of Tinkers after initially hearing a reader’s review of it on the Diane Rehm show. I tuned in exactly when one of Diane’s guests was reading a portion of the novel describing an epileptic seizure experienced by one of the novel’s main characters. The language was urgent, ecstatic, and unnerving. It seemed to dance in elipses of alarm and insight. Consequently, when I spotted Tinkers in a small bookstore in Louisville I immediately purchased it. In lieu of applying to jobs, studying for my comprehensive exams, or writing the rest of my research paper–the last thing I have to do for my degree–I opened Tinkers and dropped off the earth for a while.
I landed in a place suffused with detail–intricate and, in some cases, exotic. Harding must have written this book with his eyes closed and his mind on fire. He solders together words, creating light as air phrases that settle into a densely woven fabric of impossible meaning. There is simply no way that a work of philosophy or science can come as close as he has to trapping–like a bug in a jar–the prismatic wonders of nature. Humanity’s delicate interface with nature–simultaneously at its mercy and part of its majesty–is described in meticulously rendered passages describing the burial of a mouse and the suffering one of the protagonists undergoes at the hands of epilepsy. The level of craftsmanship in this novel is remarkable and deceptive; nothing like this ever comes easily (unless of course you’re Shakespeare, in which case you certainly aren’t reading this blog).
At its heart, Tinkers is a novel about family and the passage of time. Howard and George are its protagonists. The narrative shifts non-chronologically between visions of Howard’s life as a traveling cart salesman, and the end of George’s life (who is Howard’s son) as he’s dying of cancer. Both Howard and George are tinkers, meaning they both enjoy fooling around with things. To my mind, however, there is a difference between their tinkering habits. Howard enjoys tinkering as a means of passing the time (kind of like a physical method of daydreaming), whereas George tinkers in order to fix things, setting them aright when they’ve gone astray. Though seemingly similar, these are vastly different approaches to living in the world.
As an epileptic, Howard is constantly confronted with his inability to control foundational aspects of his life. Harding even compares Howard’s epileptic fits to death. A fine example of this occurs when Harding writes:
“It was like the opposite of death, or a bit of the same thing death was, but from a different direction: Instead of being emptied or extinguished to the point of unselfness, Howard was overfilled, overwhelmed to the same state. If death was to fall below some human boundary, so his seizures were to be rocketed beyond it.”
Frequently experiencing something so near to death allows Howard to adopt a Carpe Diem outlook. Instead of submitting to the taskmasters of efficiency and profit, he dawdles in fields, moseys down country lanes, and composes lines of poetry. He concocts whimsical ideas–like a plan to convert his cart into a traveling beehive with glass panels for observation and jars of honey for sale–instead of demanding fair payment from his boss. Howard appears to live his life as a very atemporal being.
George, on the other hand, is firmly grounded in time. A former teacher of mechanical-drawing, high school counselor, and antique clock repairer, George is meticulous about identifying problems and fixing them. He singlehandedly built the house his family lives in and, before his illness prevented him from doing so, kept it in quite good repair. Howard’s tinkering is joyful; George’s is desperate. Howard’s tinkering is infinite; George’s is time-bound. Through his tinkering, George tries to obviate death, while Howard tinkers because he considers it the only logical action when faced with death’s inevitability.
As a self-avowed tinkerer, vertan piddler, and world class fiddler (sans violin/bow), I know that I feel a much closer kinship to Howard than George. Were I to have foreknowledge of when my life would end, I think I’d still spend my days doing the same desultory things. Having an evolving destination to your life means that where you’re going is always changing. And it’s in the timeless present–that moment of singular concentration or aesthetic rapture–that all the wealth of life comes rushing in on you.
I cannot recommend this novel highly enough. In an effort to keep my comments somewhat succinct, I’ll leave you with another passage from the novel, this one describing the nature of heartache:
“Your cold mornings are filled with the heartache about the fact that although we are not at ease in this world, it is all we have, that it is ours but that it is full of strife; but even that is better than nothing at all, isn’t it? And as you split frost-laced wood with numb hands, rejoice that your uncertainty is God’s will and His grace toward you and that that is beautiful, and part of a greater certainty, as your own father always said in his sermons and to you at home. And as the axe bites into the wood, be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it. And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember: You will be dead and buried soon enough.”