on April 24, 2010
Tinkers was a well reviewed first novel and I think it is a very promising debut. Its recent Pulitzer Prize win was shocking to many as it wasn't on the radar of most critics or pundits. I liked Tinkers but think that awarding it the Pulitzer was overdoing it a bit. It's certainly not even close to the worst novel to win the prize but again I think, for me, it's a level below the really good Pulitzer Prize winners.
The maddening thing about reading this novel is that it has the parts to be brilliant. The characters are vivid. Some of the story lines are inspired. I clearly felt the sadness of some of the characters and ultimately their desperation.
The basic story line is that George Washington Crosby is near death and looking back at his life. For the largest and by far best section of the novel, George is a young boy. He reminisces about life as a child but we also see this period from his father's point of view. His father, Howard, is the most compelling character in the novel and the one I had the most affection for.
Howard is a man of little means with the heart of a poet. He scrapes together a living by travelling around the rural backroads with his strange wagon of diverse wares. Howard suffers from epilepsy and this is a burden both to himself and his family. His son George and wife Kathleen both bear him some ill will for his affliction. The readers feel Howard's sadness and desperation.
George grows up to be a fairly normal man who has a family and later in life makes a lot of money fixing old clocks. He has a passion for tinkering with clocks and with hoarding the money he makes from this endeavour.
As mentioned, I think several of the storylines are brilliant.
For me, the book has two major flaws which wrongly or rightly, I'll attribute to it being a first novel. The style is quite overdone. His descriptions are long and though quite poetic, description occupies far too much space in the book. These parts feel like the writings of a college student. Lots of similes, metaphors and meditations. This is meant to augment the story and I believe it detracts.
The second flaw is that the stories are incomplete. This usually doesn't trouble me as I don't mind loose ends. In this case, there was a lot more elaboration on the key characters and stories that could have been done. This is a very short book and I think the core could have sustained a longer and more fully realized novel.
I thought Tinkers was very promising and I definitely look forward to Harding's next work but I really thought it had flaws that you could classify as overexuberant.
I recommend Tinkers but with reservations.
on April 19, 2010
While the Booker committee has made a habit of laying eggs of late, the Pulitzer has selected an impressive collection of literary gems. Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Edward Jones' The Known World, Junot Diaz's Oscar Wao and, now, Paul Harding's Tinkers represent what great literature is all about.
I was only 20 pages into this book when I felt the overwhelming presence of Marilynne Robinson. Lo and behold, upon reading a Wikipedia entry on the author I found that he studied with Robinson at the Iowa Writers Workshop. The similarities with Gilead are strong, but not obtrusively so. I would categorize Tinkers as a more experimentally daring Gilead, or perhaps a more transcendental Gilead. The narrative is more disjointed in keeping with the protagonist's hallucinatory final illness, so the experimental nature is not gratuitous. And while Gilead was chock full of good ol' conventional Sunday religion, Tinkers tends to be more mystical and perhaps a bit more melancholy.
So who should read this excellent novel? Here you will find no explosions, no cosmic battles, no schools of magic, nobody scurrying about to solve cryptic ciphers. The cast of characters is small but deep; there's no major whodunit here. This is a family saga as told through the final, disjointed memories of a family patriarch in Maine. Like Gilead, the novel consists of the reminiscences of an old man nearing the end of his life. The narrative is not linear; it changes tense, perspective and tone with few signposts for the reader. But if you like a literary challenge, if you like the previous Pulitzer winners and if you enjoy poetic use of the English language along the lines of Marilynne Robinson, you will enjoy this novel. It's a major achievement.
on April 17, 2010
Even here in Miami Beach in mid-April I found myself shuddering occasionally as I slowly moved through this remarkable small book, mine not yet identified as the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Literature. A man is dying, his last hours ticking away in a hospital bed in the dining room of a house filled with clocks, for he has tinkered on them during his long life. He sees the world around him collapsing upon itself, the tiles of his life as meaningless, at least to future generations. And as he lies there, his kidneys almost functionless, he thinks about his father, an epileptic who was a door-to-door salesman in a fictional West Cove, Maine. The cover of this book is just so perfect: the life of the Crosby family is a bleak as is that part of the world in winter.
This may be a difficult book for some readers to get into because for a while one is provide with a richness of language that is not often found in current literature, as rich as the language of another novel set in Maine and also a Pulitzer winner, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. What is it about Maine that gets all these Pulitzer novels? Before that Richard Russo's Empire Falls.
Paul Harding's artistry allows readers into the minds of its characters. George's mother wishes she could kill herself, an impoverished woman with four children, an epileptic husband, and isolated in this tragic setting. But the lake is too frozen for her to chop the hole that would allow her to drown. The reader shivers as he reads what she is thinking. And this is only one small piece of the mastery of Harding's language. And as I read this novel I thought about my maternal grandparents who lived atop a small mountain in northern Vermont living without electricity until their fiftieth wedding anniversary in the early fifties. My grandmother was as hard on her children as George's mother was on him and his siblings. But Harding helps one to get into the skin of women like that. This is incredible prose.
There is just something about Maine apparently. We should all be watching new novels coming out of there.
on December 26, 2008
I loved this book. Yes, as the reviews state, the writing is excellent, but more than that, the story and characters are amazing. It has the unique gift of being incredibly moving without being maudlin. You feel like you know the characters and they are part of your family. I am traditionally a mystery/suspense buff so I actually wasn't sure I would like this, but I was more than pleasantly surprised. It was one of those books you become jealous of the people who have not read it yet because you want to experience that feeling again. Don't miss this reading experience.
on August 30, 2011
Telling the story of an old man's dying memories including the hard life of his own father, a tinker in New England, "Tinkers" is never going to be a barrel of laughs. Instead first time novelist Paul Harding has produced in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel is an unashamedly literary piece of creative writing that sadly, for me, simply doesn't come together. True, there are some beautiful passages but only occasionally did the story itself grip and my over-riding impression was one of style over substance. It came over as a collection of very strong creative passages but the sum of the parts was less than satisfying.
Yes, it's clever in places, beautiful in others and there's no denying the skill of the writer in this short novel, but it simply didn't come over as a creative whole for me and some passages were just plain dull. The old man, George, has spent some of his time mending clocks and the time metaphor is simply too obvious and laboured to add to the tale and the choice to intersperse the story with passages from a, presumably fictitious, 1783 book on horology added nothing for me and there's an additional strange insertion about birds nests to boot. It's as if a collection of creative writing exercises are lumped together in only a loose way.
It hints at brilliance but, for me at least, misses the mark and I found it a frustrating read. What saves it slightly is the sometimes beautiful use of language. Perhaps it all went over my head a bit, but I found it both confusing and dull at times interspersed with moments where I was engrossed in it. It's not a book I'd rush to recommend.
on April 26, 2010
Had it not been for it winning the Pulitzer, I doubt if I would have ever picked up this book. If that had been the case, my life would have been the poorer for it.
What Mr. Harding does in Tinkers is nothing short of astonishing. He takes the tale of a dying man who is surrounded by family but is drifting away from life and shows us a life through an ever-shifting kaleidoscope.
I simply cannot remember when a writer has managed to engage not just my mind, but my senses as well. His descriptions of life in New England are flawless and so real you'll swear you smell the wood smoke on a cold morning or hear fishing jumping in a pond late at night. I couldn't help but be reminded of the prose poems of Robert Frost as I read scenes such as the one where curled leaves become boats set afloat down streams. At other points where the perspective or narrative voice shifts so quickly it almost gives you literary whiplash, I'm reminded of some of E.L. Doctorow's early books. While Tinkers may remind me of Frost or Doctorow, there is no doubt that Harding has found his own unique voice. It is a strong one that I'm sure will be around for many years.
on March 5, 2010
This is Harding's first book, and it shows. As other reviewers have noted, the time, plot, and characters jump around a lot. Now, I don't have a problem with that in the abstract, but it must be done very skillfully for it to work. I don't think it works here. That, plus Harding's idiosyncratic writing style (no quotation marks, very stream-of-consciousness), leaves me with the feeling he's trying too hard to make the book sound like great literature, while the writing style tries to mask a subpar narrative.
I hated the first half, and it did get better in the second half as we learned more about the main character's early childhood. But it was too little, too late for me, and I just didn't think this book worked.
on April 24, 2009
Harding's prose is alive and brilliant. You'll find yourself reading aloud and wishing that you were the author. In fact, the writing is so beautiful that Harding could tell you any old thing, and you'd probably consider your time well spent. But Harding's fine words are not merely beautiful; they unfold and lay bare and put flesh on the lives of his characters. He offers them to you as intimates, unobstructed and luminous. Your distance from story falls away, and you recognize something that's true. That is Harding's accomplishment, and it is a remarkable one.
on August 8, 2010
I really wanted to like this book. But, I didn't. I finished it, but never got to the point where I could get through more than 10 pages without stopping to count how many more I still had left before it was over with. Too disjointed, way too many random details (I couldn't take it anymore and started skimming over the random paragraphs about nest building, etc.) Even when the story became somewhat more interesting, I couldn't get totally into it: I found it too hard to believe that George was having memories of memories that Howard had about his own father, someone George had never met. It made no sense. As others have already commented, it seemed to lack character development. I never felt any connection to George, despite the intimacy of having been with him at his deathbed. This book may very well deserve more than two stars, just not from me. I guess it was just over my head.
on July 14, 2011
Okay. Okay. I'm duly intimidated. Pulitzer Prize. Iowa Writers Workshop. Harvard Teaching gig. Literati praise up the wazoo. So what do I know? I read Tinker in my book group. I put it down after the first sixty-seven pages. Then I picked it up again. Gave it a second chance. Was I missing something? Behind my love of reading did a Philistine lurk?
I got to the book club meeting and discovered that everybody had problems with Tinkers. And, lest you doubt our credentials, there are librarians, academics and some other pretty damn educated folks among us.
To begin with, let me say that I don't give a damn about clocks. I understand the metaphors that go with living, dying and clocks. My mother used to sing a lullaby about a grandfathers clock that stopped working "when the old man died." It's been done so much the steak has burned to charcoal. And I also don't get a whole lot out of the Borealis stuff. Yes, I understand that there is a relationship between these little vignettes and the family that Harding is telling us about. I know the literary establishment can ponder and brood and wax intellectual about the profundity of it, but it doesn't work for me. So what does this prove? Only that you have to pass yourself off as better that the common reader to enjoy this book. Those who count yourself among Harding's admirers can wallow in their superiority, but to me the book was BORING.
Take out the clock and the Borealis and you've got about a hundred and twenty pages of slip-sliding between past and present tense, even within paragraphs, and ever changing points of view with first person and omniscient narration. I tried to find a pattern to this chameleon but the changing colors didn't make much sense to me. Oh yes, life's got its subjective side, alright. And we do tend to wander through it in ways that sometimes can be replicated by slipping through time and point of view. But to call that Pulitzer worthy is a stretch. Nothing new here. Nothing to see. Just move along, I say.
On top of that, and most frustrating for me, we've got ourselves some inherently unreliable narrators. George is on his deathbed, and I for one, having managed to slip out of Death's close grasp myself three times over the last five years, understand perfectly well that in those moments when life and death hang in the balance, the narrator experiencing this transformation is unreliable. I wouldn't believe my account of anything that happened to me if I delivered it in that condition. And because this is true, I don't believe Mr. Omniscient either. Harding gives me no reason to trust this narrator's account. He (And it is likely a "he" because this is a very male book. We don't even learn George's wife's name until fewer than twenty pages before the end.) gives us no reason to believe a word he says and can't hold the floor against the authors whims. That means I vote "not guilty" based upon reasonable doubt, whenever Harding tries to make a point or render a judgment.
I don't fare any better with George's father, Howard the Tinker. I'm not holding his epilepsy against him. Epileptics can be credible, but Howard is not cut from that cloth. For example, Howard apparently believes that his wife, Kathleen, is a two-faced schemer, and Mr. Omniscient doesn't dispel us of his conclusion, or delusion. But wait just a minute here. They live in a hovel, not some mansion. Howard the Tinker, can't even afford a decent horse to pull his sad inventory through the muck of rural Maine. He makes bupkis. What's Kathleen going to get out of committing him to a mental institution in secret? Is there a Mr. Right lurking who will do a Cinderella number on her? Not in this book? If she commits Howard, she gets no income, no inheritance, no palace. What's the purpose of all her scheming Howard? Can it be that a mental institution is really the right place for you after all? I dare say, your sanity is not exactly beyond question when you spend years brooding about the kids you left behind, then travel hours or days to spend five-minutes with George. Howard's not giving me strong sanity vibes.
So Tinker, for me, boils down to a bloated novella that ambitiously attempts to make statements about life and death, about family and hard-times, but never actually says anything very profound. There's no payoff and the pace is a slow Iowan death. It seems to me that whenever the author approaches anything that peaks the interest, he slams on the brakes, balls it up with a gambit of magician-like flourishes of time and point-of-view changes. Presto, you get bored. You want to turn pages all right, but just to get through it, not because you're anxious to find out what's going to happen next.
No doubt, Harding, the teacher, knows how to use all the golf clubs in the bag, but using them when he doesn't have to makes it seem like he's just showing off for his students and the literary intelligentsia who are wont to crow over style to the sacrifice of substance. This book is not for me and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who actually likes to read for the story.
Barry S. Willdorf author of The Flight of the Sorceress