Tinkers (Harding)

Paul Harding, 2009
Bellevue Literary Press
192 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781934137123

Pulitizer Prize, 2010

An old man lies dying. As time collapses into memory, he travels deep into his past where he is reunited with his father and relives the wonder and pain of his impoverished New England youth. At once heartbreaking and life affirming, Tinkers is an elegiac meditation on love, loss, and the fierce beauty of nature. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio 
Raised—Wenham, Massachusetts, USA
Education—B.A., University of Massachusetts; M.F.A., Iowa
   Writers' Workshop
Awards—Pulitizer Prize
Currently—lives in Georgetown, Massachuesetts

Paul Harding is an American musician and author, best known for his debut novel Tinkers (2009) which won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Harding was drummer for the band Cold Water Flat from approximately the founding in 1990 to 1997. He received his B.A. in English from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and an M.F.A from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He has taught writing at both Harvard University and the University of Iowa.

Harding grew up on the north shore of Boston in the town of Wenham, Massachusetts. As a youth he spent a lot of time "knocking about in the woods" which he attributes to his love of nature. His grandfather fixed clocks and he apprenticed under him, an experience that found its way into his novel Tinkers. After graduating from UMass, he spent time touring with his band Cold Water Flat in the US and Europe.

He had always been a heavy reader and while in the middle of reading Carlos Fuentes' Terra Nostra he remembered putting it down and thinking "this is what I want to do." In that book Harding saw the entire world, all of history. When he next had time off from touring with the band he signed up for a summer writing class at Skidmore College in New York. By pure chance his teacher was Marilynne Robinson (Gilead, Housekeeping) and through her he learned about the Iowa Writers' Workshop writing program and applied and was accepted.

There he studied with Barry Unsworth, Elizabeth McCracken and later Marilynne Robinson. At some point he realized some of the people he admired most were "profoundly religious" and so he spent years reading theology, and was "deeply" influenced by Karl Barth and John Calvin. He considers himself a "self-taught modern New England transcendentalist".

Musically, he admires jazz drummers and considers Coltrane's drummer, Elvin Jones, the greatest.

Harding lives near Boston with his wife and two sons. (From Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews 
Harding's interest is in the universalities: nature and time and the murky character of memory.... The small, important recollections are rendered with an exactitude that is poetic.... Harding's prose is lyrical and specific...Tinkers is a poignant exploration of where we may journey when the clock has barely a tick or two left and we really can't go anywhere at all.
Boston Globe

This compact, adamantine debut dips in and out of the consciousness of a New England patriarch named George Washington Crosby as he lies dying on a hospital bed in his living room, "right where they put the dining room table, fitted with its two extra leaves for holiday dinners." In Harding's skillful evocation, Crosby's life, seen from its final moments, becomes a mosaic of memories, "howing him a different self every time he tried to make an assessment."
The New Yorker

Harding's outstanding debut unfurls the history and final thoughts of a dying grandfather surrounded by his family in his New England home. George Washington Crosby repairs clocks for a living and on his deathbed revisits his turbulent childhood as the oldest son of an epileptic smalltime traveling salesman. The descriptions of the father's epilepsy and the "cold halo of chemical electricity that encircled him immediately before he was struck by a full seizure" are stunning, and the household's sadness permeates the narrative as George returns to more melancholy scenes. The real star is Harding's language, which dazzles whether he's describing the workings of clocks, sensory images of nature, the many engaging side characters who populate the book, or even a short passage on how to build a bird nest. This is an especially gorgeous example of novelistic craftsmanship.
Publishers Weekly

Writing with breathtaking lyricism and tenderness, Harding has created a rare and beautiful novel of spiritual inheritance and acute psychological and metaphysical suspense. —Donna Seaman

George Washington Crosby has eight days to live. After this first line, the life of George and of his father, Howard, who left when George was 12, is explored through the metaphor of George's hobby of repairing clocks. Howard was a peddler, traveling with a cart and mule through eastern Maine around the turn of the century. This isolated profession allowed him to keep his affliction, epilepsy, successfully hidden from most everyone until, finally, his wife decides he has to be institutionalized for the safety of her children. It is to avoid this that Howard disappears. George, as he lays dying, considers his life and family coming in and out of reality and history. Harding, an MFA from Iowa Writer's Workshop, creates a beautifully written study of father-son relationships and the nature of time. This short work is a solid addition for larger literary collections. Recommended.
Josh Cohen - Library Journal

Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Tinkers:

1. Start with the book's title: what is the thematic significance of "tinkers" (plural, not singular) to the story? Who are the tinkers...and what does it mean to be a tinker, literally...and figuratively, within this story?

2. Consider, too, the evocative book cover with its vast white snowscape and the single figure in the distance. How might the image be related, symbolically, to the story? What connection is explored between wilderness and humanity, life and dying?

3. At the beginning, as George lies dying, the ceiling collapses on top of him. Think about the irony: in most deathbed scenes, souls float upward to heaven; in this one, heaven comes crashing down. Did it actually happen...or is it an hallucination? And why does the story begin as it does?

4. How would you describe Howard—a man who makes his living selling tangible goods but who stops, literally, to smell the flowers? What about his disappearance? Was Howard right to simply disappear when threatened with hospitalization? Was his wife justified in wanting him institutionalized?

5. Talk about the way in which the author writes about Howard's epilepsy, how seizures offer Howard a visionary sense of reality, of the world. Do Harding's descriptions of the seizures seem plausible...overly artistic...? Why, as an author, might Harding have given his character this disorder?

6. Howard is the link between two generations of men in this novel. Talk about those three men—especially Howard's relationship with his father...and with his son George? What impact did Howard's father's dementia have on him...and what impact did his own epilepsy have on George?

7. This book is concerned with the joining of matter (people and things) with the transcendent—unknowable space and time. Talk about George's love of time-pieces—ticking clocks with their gears and tumblers—and Howard's love of his tin pots, wrought iron, nails, and nylon stockings. What do these dual fascinations suggest about the ability, or desire, of humans to control time and space? Can time be tamed?

8. Discuss the book's structure, the ways the points of view, time frame, and even tenses change. Did you find the various ways of telling—through journals, manuals, diaries, meditations—difficult to follow? Does the book, to you, lack unity or seem disjointed? Why might Harding have chosen this unusual narrative structure?

9. What role do Native Americans play in this story? Why do we catch glimpses of them—chasing salmon beneath boats, as "silhouettes traced by the sun," repairing birch bark—only to see them vanish quietly back into the forest? What is their connection to the novel's themes?

10. Paul Harding says he is a transcendentalist (see "About the Author," above). What is a transcendentalist (think Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau) and how are those beliefs and philosophy expressed within this novel? In what way is this book a transcendentalist work, perhaps akin to Thoreau's Walden? (You might want to do a little research.)

11. Ultimately, what does this book have to say about the passage from life to death, about how the past shapes the present, and about our dreams? Can you put into words some of the life issues Paul Harding explores in this work?

12. Talk about the books publishing history. According to the New York Times (4/18/10), the book was rejected over and over again by major publishing houses. Harding says all the rejection letters suggested that "Nobody wants to read a slow, contemplative, meditative, quiet book." "It was, 'Where are the car chases?'" Of course...now Harding is vindicated: the book has won critical acclaim, including the 2010 Pulitzer. What do you feel about the remark that Tinkers is too slow paced and contemplative? Did you feel that way reading it? Do you think it will appeal to a wider audience—or to only serious readers? If you were an editor, would you have taken a chance on this book...or passed it over?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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