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Tinkers by Paul Harding

In 2012 a friend persuaded me to apply for the Tin House writers’ conference, because Paul Harding was leading a class on novel writing. She had read Tinkers and she wanted to find out how he did it. I don’t know if I did find that out but I discovered a lot about writing, drank some great beer, and made lasting memories.

Tinkers confounds all the advice my editor is currently giving me: ‘too much description, digression and diversion’. Tinkers is all description, digression and diversion. It hardly seems reasonable to call it a novel at all. It’s a collection of vignettes; the pieces of a stained-glass window that assemble themselves into a view on a story.

George Crosby lies dying and thinks about his father; possibly that’s what’s happening. This book doesn’t bother itself with mundane attempts at rationalizing its existence. You have to take this book on its own terms. George’s father’s story is told. Howard Crosby, was a tinker, moving through parts of New England with a mule-drawn wagon. He was also an epileptic, in the days when the illness could have you confined in an asylum. George, for his part, tinkers with clocks. Or did, before he was dying.

Perhaps ‘evocation’ rather than ‘novel’ would be a better description for this book. Harding places you closer than you could have dreamed possible to human thoughts, the natural world, and the insides of clocks. There is immense variety in his writing style. There might not be the pace you get from a fast-progressing plot or rapid dialogue but there’s plenty in the gallop from a dying man hallucinating his house collapsing, to the stubbornness of country women, to an eighteenth-century clock-repair manual. This is not a book you can read while letting your mind wander elsewhere. Every word has been carefully chosen; every scene is a story in its own right.

Some images are surreal and disturbing, such as the description of what happens in George’s body as he dies.

Some are poignant: ‘God hear me weep because I let myself think all is well if I am fully stocked with both colors of shoe shine, and beeswax for the wooden tables, sea sponge and steel wool for dirty dishes.’

Some are mystical: ‘When new buds light up wet black branches, they seem to burst forth from another side of time, which belonged to men like my father.’

Some are brutally matter of fact: ‘He was dying from renal failure. His actual death was going to be from poisoning by uric acid. Whatever food or water he managed to consume never came back out of his body.’

Perhaps it’s as well such an intense book is only 190 pages long, in a format smaller than your average paperback.

If you like writing that shines out like the crown jewels, Tinkers is for you.

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