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Death from the inside



Last modified: Sunday, August 22, 2010
Paul Harding's first novel tells a hopeful human story. It is a story of retrospection, of one man's dying in old age and the annals of his life. It goes one generation deeper, to the father who abandoned him to save himself. The future, by contrast, is a blur of faces above the deathbed of George W. Crosby, the children and grandchildren to whom he waits too long to divulge secrets that, in any case, turn out to be less meaningful than he thought they would.

Tinkers contrasts the human spirit with a world regulated by clocks. Crosby was a teacher who fixed clocks on the side. His customers paid dearly for his expertise, and Crosby hid the money away. These are the secrets - what he has, where he stowed it - that he can no longer tell after his infirmities rob him of speech and coherence.

Harding tells Crosby's story, and the story of his father, in a stream of consciousness that winds forward and backward in time. 'George Crosby remembered many things as he died, but in an order he could not control,' Harding writes. In the hands of another author, the lack of chronology might be jarring and annoying. But Harding's writing is gorgeous. The mysteries he plants in each episode, the tensions he introduces, pull the reader on.

The most harrowing moment of this kind occurs during George's childhood. His father, Howard, is an epileptic. During a seizure he bites George's hand, prompting George's mother to seek stitches for her son and medical advice about her husband. She does not tell Howard Crosby of her decision, but she brings home a brochure from Eastern Maine State Hospital. The reader is left to ponder the possibility of Howard's committal for life to a mental hospital during a time when epilepsy was misunderstood and poorly treated.

Howard is an itinerant merchant, driving a wagon drawn by a mule named Prince Edward around far northern Maine. He is a poor man, a disappointment to his wife and an easy mark for the hustler who supplies him with goods. But he is a free spirit, too, good-hearted, caring and deeply and whimsically engaged in divining the meaning of the world through which his wagon transports him. The crushing of such a life is a tragic prospect, and what will become of him matters deeply to the reader.

The fate of his son George is known from the novel's first sentence. It is only a matter of time before he dies, and not much time. Harding's achievement in telling George's story is in imagining his death. Many of us have witnessed such a death, standing lovingly, if helplessly, at the rail of the bed of an old person whose grip on life is slipping and whose grasp of any given moment is random.

The difference in Tinkers is that the reader experiences this death from the perspective of the dying man. It is not a matter of comparing the shreds of life still present against a full life that one knows as a son or a sister. The point of view is from the deathbed looking back, looking within, looking up.

Because the dying George Crosby cannot really communicate with those gathered around him, his immediate intentions go mostly unfulfilled. His visitors give him what they think he wants - a shave, a drink of water. Once speech is gone, dying becomes a conversation with oneself. Confusion, hallucination and free association intervene. There might be a desire to sum up, to square things, to comprehend, to continue to be, but the cares of existence do dwindle away.

As fine as this depiction of death from the inside is, the reason Harding's novel is so compelling - it won this year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction, a rare achievement for a first novel - is its invention and telling of Howard's and George's life stories. They are the tinkers of the title. The father supplies the needs of people in remote realms and fixes what they need fixed. The son knows clocks. And yet, as Howard learns when he faces committal and as George discovers on his deathbed, a life is more than a job and a wage.

Any author would be pleased with the honors and sales this novel has achieved, but with the acclaim come high expectations. It will be interesting to see where Harding goes from here, and especially whether he can demonstrate the same depth and fullness in portraying female characters that he did in creating George and Howard Crosby.

There is every reason to think that whatever he writes will be good. Few contemporary writers have his gift for uniting language and nature through a powerful imagination. Tinkers is a father-son story told with skill, depth and beauty.

(Paul Harding will come to Concord on Sept. 16 for a program at Gibson's Bookstore at 7 p.m. featuring a reading from Tinkers and a book signing. Harding lives near Boston with his wife and two sons.)