Somewhere in the midst of discovering tiny Bellevue Literary Press and its incredible launch of an original trade paperback called “Tinkers” (191 pages; $14.95), I decided to take a look at the book to make sure it was worthy of a whole column (or, as it turns out, two).
Wouldn’t you know, this first novel by Paul Harding has so much originality and fresh writing that I could not believe — well, first, that the author is still in his 40s (see left; surely his mind’s age is about 142); and second, that the intricate and animated construction of the novel becomes a character in its own right.
My only regret is that as much as I admire Bellevue Press for its literary standards, I wish the cover copy for “Tinkers” weren’t so dreary.
“An old man lies dying,” it begins. “As time collapses into memory, he travels deep into his past where he is united with his father and relives the wonder and pain ….” Sounds like a dozen other books to me, and misses a certain playfulness on Harding’s part. In most deathbed scenes, the soul rises gracefully to heaven, but here the house (which the dying man once built himself) — in fact everything in his universe — comes crashing down on him.
As walls crack and foundation gives way, George Crosby, a former teacher lying in his rented hospital bed, remembers teaching his grandkids how to staple insulation in place. “Now two or three lengths of it had come loose and lolled down like pink woolly tongues,” along with shattered windows, caved-in ceiling, and “electrical wires that looked like severed veins” to George.
There is no respite. “The second floor fell on him, with its unfinished pine framing and dead-end plumbing and racks of old coats and boxes.” Now he sees right through a crippled roof as “the clouds halted, paused for an instant, and plummeted onto his head. The very blue of the sky followed…Next fell the stars, tinkling about him like the ornaments of heaven shaken loose. Finally, the black vastation itself came untacked and draped over the entire heap, covering George’s confused obliteration.”
A Seam to Slip Into
But we don’t have time to ponder this hallucination (or true experience?) because Harding suddenly skips back 70 years to introduce us to George’s father, Howard, the tinker of the title.
Howard is first seen in the 1920s, driving his mule-drawn wagon with its “heavy chest of drawers, each fitted with a recessed brass ring, pulled open with a hooked forefinger, that contained brushes and wood oil, tooth powder and nylon stockings, shaving soap and straight-edge razors.”
His job is plodding and practical, but Howard is something of a dreamer. In the fall, as his mule, Prince Edward, pulls the cart along the back roads of rural Maine, Howard’s eye is affixed not on the tin buckets, boot strings, nails or child-sized coffins he’s sold but on the “blazing maple leaves” on which all things, for that moment, rest.
Maybe this is a story of how people live in nature, we think, and it is, but there’s much more to it than that. During the winter, Howard visits an aging hermit who lives so deep in the snowbound forests that he has to walk for miles to meet the tinker. Howard watches him emerge from the whiteness like an existential dot (see cover illustration below) and ponders the blurring of wilderness and humanity.
“No one could imagine how a man could survive one winter alone and exposed in the woods, never mind decades of them. Howard, instead of trying to explain the hermit’s existence in terms of hearth fires and trappers’ shacks, preferred the blank space the old man actually seemed to inhabit; he liked to think of some fold in the woods, some seam that only the hermit could sense and slip into, where the ice and snow, where the frozen forest itself, would accept him and he would no longer need fire or wool blankets, but instead flourish wreathed in snow, spun in frost, with limbs like cold wood and blood like frigid sap.”
The Opposite of Death
If Howard sees the hermit woven almost literally into the landscape, it’s because his vision has been artfully occluded by nature. Suffering from a severe form of epilepsy, he has become acutely sensitive to the coming of a seizure — his “diet of lightning”:
“The aura, the sparkle and tingle of an oncoming fit was not the lightning — it was the cooked air that the lightning pushed in front of itself.”
Howard doesn’t remember any of the seizures, but he knows that “his brain nearly fried in its skull pan” during it. It’s as though a door opened to “the star-gushing universe,” and sheer voltage “instantly burst the seams of his thin body.”
Here, then, epilepsy becomes the lens by which Howard can see, more clearly than people who don’t have the disease, how the universe reclaims the body long before we die. For Howard, in the instant “when the bolt touched flesh…he became pure, unconscious energy. It was like the opposite of death, or a bit of the same thing death was, but from a different direction.”
The mention of death and its opposite provides an early clue to the novel’s huge design. “Tinkers” is concerned with a meeting of humanity and matter that signals vast and (previously) unknowable change. Because they live in rural Maine, the characters already feel part of nature’s transformations. Time has little chronology until they notice it, and space is as infinite as emotion.
The few Native Americans left, “as old as light and just as diffuse,” appear briefly as guides between natural and manmade worlds. An Indian emerges out of the forest to repair a birch bark and vanishes without sound or movement. Others are seen only “as silhouettes traced by the sun.” One legendary Native American, long gone, appears when fishermen see him “dart by the water deep beneath their boats, chasing salmon.”
And so the young Howard wonders: Did the Indian leave quickly to return to the forest, or was he “reabsorbed back, not only into trunk and root, stone and leaf but into light and shadow and season and time itself.”
This idea — that death is not an end but a gradual integration of life from one state to another — becomes the novel’s central preoccupation. And it’s not just life – all things are changing, consumed by each other, all of the time, as when Howard finds an old book in an attic: “The dust in the air was made up of the book I found,” he writes in a journal. “I breathed the book before I saw it; tasted the book before I read it.”
So for inanimate objects, too, there is no such thing as beginning or end, only a constant remixing in which we humans are the lucky ones, Harding seems to say, because we get to observe.
In the spring, for example, Howard, having stopped his wagon after a snowstorm, gives his mule Prince Edward a carrot and wades into a beautiful field of wildflowers:
“Howard closed his eyes and inhaled. He smelled cold water and cold, intrepid green. Those early flowers smelled like cold water. Their fragrance was not the still perfume of high summer; it was the mineral smell of cold, raw green.” It’s as though we can inhale the very passage of time.
From Infinity to Controlled Time
“Tinkers” speaks just as eloquently to the fact that we are human, after all, locked into perceived ideas of time and space, trying to control both.
It’s no coincidence that George, when he retires, turns into an expert tinkerer and repairer of ancient clocks, through which he ponders the phenomenon of controlled time.
Hundreds of clocks, their inner workings spilled everywhere in the house (the same house that’s ready to collapse on him when his time is over), represent an amazing truth to George – that the power of time can be “tamed by the successive gears, from savage energy to civilized servant, to perform the most rarefied of tasks: namely…to mark precisely each of the 86,400 seconds in our earthly day, and furthermore, to do so for eight days at a time…”
It takes eight days for a typical hand-wound clock to run out of time, eight days for George to die, and eight days for the time in Harding’s story to run out. Time in this ingenious novel is both clocked and mixed up by vignettes, journals, instruction manuals, observations, meditations and diaries. Tense can change with the next paragraph, as can first- and third- person voices. For a while, it’s hard to know how all the little stories are related to the one big story.
But that’s the joy of any exquisite mosaic. The placement of each precious gem is so compelling, sometimes so breathtaking, sometimes even life-changing, that we’re content to wait until the grand picture emerges, at last.
Since reading “Tinkers” I find myself thinking of its images and messages all the time.
I’ll never go out on a boat again without seeing that Indian chasing salmon under the water.
When people my age (60+) refer to their bodies as “betraying” them by growing old, I’ll think of the endless reabsorption that’s given new life by our bodies and returns new life when our bodies are born. (This doesn’t help alleviate anxiety about death; it just makes the process more interesting.)
And when someone refers to death as the end, I’ll think of “the opposite of death,” that process in nature that is ongoing and infinite, allowing human beings “fleeting glances” that “the mystery is ours to ponder.”