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3.0 out of 5 stars Tinkering Through the Madness...., February 19, 2011
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This review is from: Tinkers (Paperback)
"Tinkers" is a complex elegiac meditation on the insubstantiality of human life. A dying man witnesses the collapse of his personality structure and with that his obscure ties to those with whom he has shared the experiences of a lifetime. In the throes of his dying he realizes that the circadian rhythms of nature revealed to him though his association with his father have defined what meaning he is legitimately able to hold on to in the experience of dying. Alas, for George Washington Crosby, it is not his extended family, his home or metaphorically, his personality, or even his wife that have fired the actions of a lifetime, but the physics of the experience of living, the mechanical aspects of day by day motion. These "tinkerings" have afforded him momentary satisfactions and limited opportunities. For in the end, Harding implies, we are all tinkers, trying to make our inconsequential lives work for us. In the process, we each seek our share of self-gratification and make our own imprudent decisions before the final "taking of a toast and tea," as T.S. Eliot so aptly described that final reckoning.

To convey the unfathomable substance of life, Harding uses a cacophony of voices, stylistic techniques, and writing styles, as if to suggest that the examined life is nothing short of ponderous and unsatisfying. There is no "truth" to be gleaned from the experience; life is what it is: quantum soup. As such, man struggles through it, inspired by the beauty of the natural world and appropriately diminished by life's banality and disappointments. In the final analysis, even human intimacy is denied the pilgrim; man's destiny is to satisfy himself with the objective, shifting realities of the world, since there isn't much more to hang one's hat upon. The beauty of nature and knowledge of the workings of things are all man can hope to fill his hungry heart. To seek beyond that limited understanding is absurd. Thus was George Washington Crosby's vocation as a high school mechanical drawing teacher and guidance counselor apropos for a man who intuitively recognized life's limitations.

Most disturbing is the fact that the people with whom George shares his last days and moments are ghostly presences, only one of them seemingly a companion on that final lap to oblivion. This person is, of course, his deceased father, a tinker, who first exposed the young and confused George to the grandeur of the natural world. A poet of sorts, Howard, an epileptic, experienced in his disastrous seizures the otherworldly glimpses of light and truth that fortified him enough to endure a loveless marriage and the gut wrenching poverty of a salesman and fixer-tinker. Unable to bring love into his life, he continued to struggle on in the face of illness and poverty because he had children to support and because he was strong in the face of adversity. However, when he must eventually face the fact that his wife neither loves nor respects him, he moves on to build a new life that is emotionally rewarding. This alteration of values and loyalties suggests the impermanence of relationships and the futility of idealizing the temporal.

Harding compares human life to the intricate workings of a clock. George repairs clocks to supplement his retirement and finds solace in the sounds of their constant ticking. The clocks, mechanical objects of precision and complexity, provide the central metaphor of Harding's musings. They are reliable, complex machines that can be put to careful use, like a good horse or a cart, but they lack the capacity to make life anything other than absurd. Both Howard and George can discern the blending of light and dark in the landscapes of their lives, but neither can perceive any truth that lies beyond their mere struggles to survive. Both are consoled by the beauty of the physical world, its astounding detail and precision of form, but like Howard's father who dies in an insane asylum, both men realize the impossibility of fathoming meaning beyond the physical world. Short miraculous moments of say, building a bird's nest or repairing a clock cannot fill the gaps created by a loveless marriage or open up for a despairing woman a hole in the ice when it is frozen solid. The short moments of feeling connected to nature cannot explain why a father would abandon his children or a woman would commit her husband to an institution, but they are the compensatory gifts of being human - man's only consolation for the seeming lack of meaning or joy one expects of life. Howard's father, a minister, is so baffled by his inability to grasp the meaning of life that he goes crazy. Incurring epilepsy as a result of his father's insanity, Howard engages in a lifelong search for meaning, tinkering his way among people in a hopeless quest for meaning and community. However, even these attempts are quelled by women who insist that things not change, that even a new brand of soap cannot clean any better than the old. Nothing changes; nothing gets any better. Through such annoyances, Howard patiently labors to please and to succeed in his meager profession - against all odds, like Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill, only to let it go and begin once more the exhausting occupation of heaving it upward.

At one point Howard notes that a clock or "The universe's time cannot be marked thusly. Such a crooked and flimsy device could only keep the fantastic hours of unruly ghosts." And so it is that as George transitions into the netherworld he experiences a "shifting mass, the tiles of a mosaic spinning, swirling , reportraying, always in recognizable swaths of colors, 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." And although "George never permitted himself to imagine his father," he finds their lives inextricably bound by his becoming a Methodist, Congregationalist and finally a Unitarian, marrying, moving, teaching mechanical drawing, playing poker and fishing - all conventional, simple activities of the living being. Because life is hard and evades explanation, he forgave his mother her "contrary heart," even though her actions forever dissolved the marriage of his parents and separated him from his father. George realized that "bitterness staunched her disappointment." She was simply unable to rise above her despair. Such is the existential lot of all humans. At one point George makes a cassette of his life in an attempt to grasp some meaning and convey it to his family, but the process results in his "lamenting the loss of this world of light and hope." He openly weeps at the recognition of how little measure there is when one confronts the story of his own existence.

Yet Howard is capable of a rare intuitive process, possibly the result of his seizures when he "became pure, unconscious energy." Howard thus intuits the death of Gilbert, the hermit. From him he inherits an aged copy of "The Scarlet Letter," symbolizing man's emotional isolation and opacity. Yet through the various disappointments of his life, George exemplifies "a heart open to nature and a head devoted to the advancement of men." Life for George, and perhaps his father as well, is in the details. In the end these details unite the two men; they are alter egos in terms of their grasp of the world. It is significant that George is dying of renal failure. It is the buildup of disappointment and seeming waste that causes his death. He recalls his father's love of wildflowers, and the memory is consoling as are the images of nature. He notes "But those pieces, smooth and glossy and lacquered, are the dark tablets of my death in gray and black and bleached, drained, and until they are in place, everything else will keep on shifting." Although there are momentary intimations of meaning, man is ultimately ignorant of the vast workings of the universe. For Howard, the pictures of angels in the family bible instilled fear; for George his own intuitive leanings are not gifts of faith, but its opposite, more adequately depicted in his final hallucinations of the collapse of his house, house being the classic Jungian metaphor of the personality structure. In viewing the falling down of his house around him, Harding harkens back to Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." In the end the sentient man is nothing but a devastated structure - useless and forlorn, like a lost dog. Despairing and without hope. Likewise, Harding implies a transcendental mingling with the elements when man dies, like Bryant's "Thanatopsis": George realizes "the dark tablets of my death" will be a "scrolling" which will move about and be "mingled with in endless ways of other people's memories, so that I will remain a set of impressions porous and open to combination with all the other vitreous squares floating about in whoever else's frames." Man is part of the whole of nature "back to Adam". However, that commonality with nature does not grant man the capacity to understand the complexity of life. George also notes: that although the "mystery" of life is man's to ponder, the condition of life itself is a "puzzle" that never quite fits together. And thus does "life" not just "stop," but "simply ends." Life is best summed up: "The ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it." Howard further notes, "And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember: You will be dead and buried soon enough." Life is struggle; make the most of it by "blending with the elements."

In terms of characterization, one might argue that all three men: Howard, his father, and George, are self-absorbed, meditative loners whose bafflement with the world might be rooted in their inabilities to connect with people. They are shadowy presences in the minds of those around them much as are the companions at George's death bed ghosts of times past, beings with whom George shared little and reaped the same. One might argue with George's death bed glimpses into the hollowness of life. Perhaps had he committed his time to others - deeply and profoundly - he might have left the world differently, perhaps in the warm cocoon of humans loving him and wishing him well through the bardos awaiting him on his journey.

The book has poetic passages, as others have noted. The narrative is somewhat of a mishmash of styles, points of view and devices, and as such lacks a certain coherence, as far as I'm concerned. Most of the book is elegiac and meditative. I prefer books with more of a plot. A Pullitzer Prize recipient, it is compared to Marilyn Robinson's "Housekeeping," one of my favorite literary novels. I see the reason for the comparison but would not place "Tinkers" at that level. In Robinson's case, the ideas are clearly communicated without didacticism. There is a plot that guides the development of the work and although it is dark and explosive in its exploration of the human condition, it is also more complete and coherent.

"Tinkers," tends to be obscure, loosely plotted, ambiguous in its implications, and lacking in action. However, "Tinkers" is truly American as evidenced by the transcendental threads running through it and by the countless elliptical references in tone and language to revered American writers. In the end, implies Harding, we are all tinkers, tinkering away at life, plumbing some of its complex mechanics, such as the inner workings of a clock, for example, but never, except in intimations of nature or observing its imagery does man apprehend anything but despair and obscurity. Now how populist and American is that? I'm sure Emerson is taking it all in as we speak... After all, it is man's self-reliance that equips him both to acknowledge and accept the limitations of being human.

Marjorie Meyerle
Colorado Writer
Author: "Bread of Shame"
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Sep 20, 2011 3:43:50 PM PDT
Peter K says:
This may be the most thoughtful, eloquent, insightful review of a novel that I've ever seen on Amazon. Nicely done!

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 20, 2011 5:00:35 PM PDT
Peter K,

Thank you so much. Since I regularly get "negs" for no reason I can discern, I doubly appreciate your kind response.


Marjorie Meyerle
Author: Bread of Shame
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