While snooping around my Airbnb in Joshua Tree last week, I came across a dusty paperback with a peculiar title and a cover image of a man in a snowstorm. I inspected it further. Why? I'm not sure. After all, I was escaping the snowy northeast on this desert vacation. But how often do you find a book set in your home state 3,000 miles away?
Tinkers by Paul Harding was a structurally well-crafted read about an old man's memories and his coming to terms with his father's abandonment. The story takes place in Maine and follows the dreams of George Washington Crosby as he dies of cancer surrounded by his family. His dreams are chopped up memories in no time-specific order--his own, his father's--and they weave together the tale of what humans must wrestle with before they leave this plane.
Writing this book review proved challenging, as the book's story is non-linear and the narrative felt structurally experimental. Harding chose a difficult, meandering storytelling technique, and I found it impacting my own style. Like a contagion, this was most evident to me as I tried to summarize the story for this blog: Do I explain George's life first? His father's life? Do I bother discussing the story at all, or go straight to the technique?
In the end, I've written a short book review for a quick read I discovered in my colorful desert oasis.
As George drifts in and out of consciousness, the reader learns his history and the history of his estranged father, Howard, through a series of half-hallucinatory vignettes. Howard is a door-to-door salesman and tinker who drives a donkey cart through the backwoods of Maine in the 1920s, selling gadgets and home goods to housewives. After a particularly bad epileptic seizure in which he bites his young son George, Howard abandons his family and doesn't make contact with George again until he is a grown man.
George the child dislikes his father; George the adult, however, finds that he is also a "tinker". Through his dreams, George imagines his house, filled his life's tinkerings, crumbling around him, his family at his side, his father's life interwoven with his own.
A clock repairman in his retirement, George turns to his clocks to describe his feelings on his family, life, and death:
"When he realized that the silence by which he had been confused was that of all of his clocks having been allowed to wind down, he understood that he was going to die in the bed where he lay...
When his grandchildren had been little, they had asked if they could hide inside the clock. Now he wanted to gather them and open himself up, and hide them among his ribs and faintly ticking heart."
Harding introduces another element interspersed between Howard and George: encyclopedic entries from a clock repair manual. Jarring at times, these segments pull the reader out of the story and, although adding to the structural ambition clearly there, create an artificiality that surrounds the entire novel.
In the end, George dies, but not before reminding the reader that every family has a story to tell.
The narrative was crafted well--technically. This bobbing and swaying between time periods is a difficult technique to execute. The big strategic challenge for a novel like this, though, is to remain interesting without confusing the reader, and the easiest way to do so is with surprises laced throughout the story. With each switch to a new character, I thought, "Where is this train heading?"
This is where Tinkers begins to breakdown.
The story was interesting enough, reminding me of my own grandfather at times. But my storytelling grandfather told his tales with a spark and depth missing from Tinkers. His characters--my ancestors--were alive in front of us as I sat on the floor at his feet. His train was always heading somewhere new. In Tinkers, however, no matter how numerous and personal-seeming the vignettes, I felt no connection to George or Howard, no shocking surprise. The turning points in their lives seemed artificial, existing more to serve the structure than to maintain reader interest. Harding misses his chance to give spark to the story, instead choosing to focus on structure. No technique or elegant word choice can salvage this dullness.
I am from Maine; the main character in this book is from Maine. I read it because of the coincidence (and because I had finished American Gods--more on that here--and wanted something light before tackling another James Joyce novel). For all the coincidences and the meandering prose style, I finished it. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys analyzing structural narrative technique, with the caveat that the story suffers a bit from lack of story depth. The book was a good effort and I look forward to seeing Harding grow as a novelist.
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