George Washington Crosby is in the last few days of his life, confined to his bed, surrounded by various relatives, drifting in and out of consciousness. 70 years earlier, George’s father, Howard Aaron Crosby, is busy taking his wagon, fitted with dozens of drawers containing everything from shaving soap to straight-edged razors, shoe shine, boot strings and gin, out amongst the rural folks who don’t have the wherewithal to travel however far it is to the nearest convenience store. George is dreaming, of the house collapsing about him, of ‘a fresh avalanche of wood and nails, tarpaper and shingles and insulation’, as Howard, imagining himself to be something of a poet, waxes lyrical about the monarch butterflies up from Mexico. Back and forth Harding takes us, between the two men, life in concentrated form as we dwell on George, more free-flowing, as open as the road you might say, when it comes to Howard.
Over the course of three long, dense chapters we learn that Howard is something of a dreamer, a man working for his family but struggling with epilepsy who might waste a day crafting strange instruments made from grass in the run-up to a fit, whose embittered wife works to keep his illness hidden from their children; a man, furthermore, whose narrow trade is further eroded by a clientele who react badly to any change in the consumables (there’s a lovely bit of interrogation concerning a new bar of soap) and a shifty overseer named Cullen who skims all but a pittance for Howard. George, meanwhile, takes up the tinker mantle from his father, mending watches (a lot of Tinkers is taken up with the workings of watches and even the dimmest reader can sense Harding making wider points about time and history in his detailed descriptions), surprising his customers with the cost of his expertise. History is a fluid object in the novel:
‘George Crosby remembered many things as he died, but in an order he could not control. To look at his life, to take the stock he always imagined a man would at his end, was to witness a shifting mass, the tiles of a mosaic spinning, swirling, reportraying, always in recognizable swaths of colour, familiar elements, molecular units, intimate currents, but also independent now of his will, showing him a different self every time he tried to make an assessment.’
As in a book like Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, it isn’t always clear where you are (a paragraph break can switch you from George to Howard and vice versa, or even from Howard or George at one point in their history to Howard or George at another point in their history. We are even treated to a book read to George as he dies by one of his grandchildren (Charlie Crosby, the narrator of Harding’s second book, Enon, is also glimpsed on the periphery of things). Which isn’t to say that Tinkers is confusing – or at least what confusions it has are fleeting; this is a novel that just requires concentration, is all, and it repays that concentration with writing that is both beautiful and thoughtful (like Simon Van Booy, at his best, when he isn’t disappearing up his own behind).
What is perhaps most interesting about the book is that, almost in spite of its peripatetic nature, its apparent disregard for such things as plot points, there is a distinct throughline that leads the reader to converge upon Howard and George at the climax, as George leaves this world remembering the last time he met his father, after Howard abandoned the family and seemingly disappeared, only to return one Christmas, in the midst of Howard’s own young family’s Christmas celebrations. Which isn’t to say that a good handful of readers won’t be put off by how ‘hard’ (quote/unquote) Harding can be. But Tinkers is best read – and will be read in years to come I think – much as, say, Cormac McCarthy’s The Orchard Keeper or Don DeLillo’s Americana are read now, by people catching up on a great American writer’s early works.
Any Cop?: A potent and poetic debut that challenges and rewards in equal measure. Paul Harding is very definitely a name to watch.