Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Tinkers by Paul Harding

‘Tinkers’ is a book about people different from book lovers. People who do not articulate their feelings, or think through their angst. If they delight in the beauty and grandeur of nature or take pleasure in the company of their loved ones, they do not resort to painting or poetry; they would instead fashion appreciation with their hands. So a trapper whittles a stick into a figure, while a village woman strings flowers in a pattern of her own devising. These are people working at mediums that are far from romantic. And the constraints of leisure and energy have stripped away any flamboyance from their activity. They are tinkers, tinkering when they can, at materials available to them, and the enforced economy and precision of this very circumstance imbues their work with a grace that elevates it beyond art. That might be one way of looking at Tinkers.

Or we could say that Paul Harding, in his 2010 Pulitzer winner, examines the art hidden in all craftsmanship, the artist inside every artisan. He sings for the unsung and inarticulate artist, describing with the same precision and economy and sympathy, an exquisite frame of reeds and flowers woven by a grateful epileptic for his tired wife, in a different time a clock lovingly put back by the versed hands of this man’s son, or many years later a young man giving his dying grandfather a shave he craves. He tries to get inside their minds and although I am not sure he succeeds, what he conveys fascinates.

Paul Harding
I have always been bad with my hands, never learning to knit or crochet or draw kolam patterns. I relied on my analytical and conceptual abilities to tide over workshop and Drawing in Engineering College. I prefer cleaning to cooking, and it is the hair salon always- I don’t even have a hair dryer for my long hair. So maybe I am not skilled in navigating expert systems, but hang on, reading Tinkers evoked in me the state of exaltation I entered into when I was learning Mandarin- or when I filled out reams of paper in high school with my best handwriting, never mind the prose. You could call it the pleasure of accomplishment. Yes calligraphy could have been my skill… But coming back to the book, yes, Paul Harding succeeds in creating with his pen that state of pure and ecstatic concentration that a craftsman becomes.

Tinkers also tells a story, the story of George Washington Crosby, an old man who lies dying in his living room, surrounded by a wonderful and loving if normal and functional family. Harding dives right into the dying man’s mind and immediately we are made aware that he is a carpenter, a clock-worker, an engineer, a tinker par excellence. But while old George Crosby is still in tune with his calling, his dying mind returns again and again to memories of his epileptic father, Howard. These personal recollections are interspersed by an authorial account of Howard Crosby’s life, a life of hardship and betrayal and lucky breaks. The novel is thus exquisitely crafted, weaving together a superb countdown to old George Crosby's end - including anecdotal reminiscences and everyday concerns as well as the daydreams and delusions of an ill man- with flashbacks to a different era dotted here and there with present time authorial notes of interest. Reading the book was like experiencing a curiosity, a post-modern product that takes stream-of-consciousness writing and sets it on its head. Stream of consciousness suggests a gurgling brook, speedily making progress, but Harding will not delineate thought, he has made the point that the mind jumps about randomly in space, making ever more lovely points.

However time moves and a story needs be told and here Harding is in control, keeping us hooked despite his fascinating departures and his absorption in the discontinuous and particularized nature of our musings. We are treated to glimpses of lives led, of fathers who fly when their hearts break, of sons who sympathize, of the redemptive power of tinkering. There is a story there for fiction junkies like me who will wade through text on ‘How to Make a Bird’s Nest’ describing exactly that, before we can find out what happens next. You may or may not choose to do so, although these departures make for  rewarding reading. If you like the book, but find yourself unable to finish it, put it down and take it up later. Or is there something like too clever, too crafted? Why am I not surprised that Paul Harding has an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop or that he taught writing at Harvard? I suppose it is all a function of where you are when you pick up the book. If it does not do the trick for you, pick up Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, (translated from Norwegian). More story, better suspense and fewer descriptions of mechanical activity.

At any rate Tinkers is a paean in lyrical prose to the inarticulate craftsman. Keep it in your Kindle, so you can dip into it from time to time. An interesting book.

1 comment:

small talk said...

sounds very interesting...