A dying man’s last ditch effort to stitch together rapidly disintegrating fragments of his memories into one coherent whole so he could understand his life better and make sense of it all. Makes for an interesting read? Paul Harding, in his own quest towards understanding his own grandfather through the fragmented reminisces of his father, whose life mirrors that of the narrator’s father certainly thinks so. So does it matter if the book lay neglected for long before an indie publishing house took up its case. Does it matter if New York Times mentions it under ‘the one that got away’ and New Yorker includes it in a concise ‘Briefly Noted’ section. That, nevertheless did not deter the Pulitzer Committee from recognizing this work, and we say, thankfully so.
What if we could, through the tiny window of our collapsing moments, relive our entire life in torrents of long- forgotten memories? Memories such vivid and picaresque, that when weaved together they portend a collapse of the whole life we led, of the relations that we deemed important and of the myriad thoughts that catapulted our minds through the roughness. In Tinkers, a debut work that refuses to let the dictums of the fast-paced life we live today dictate terms with the narrative, that trips over memories that while forgotten once, do bring back torrential suffering and hallucination and that, through the vivid and arresting descriptions of the ice-swathed countryside of the Maine, let’s us see what the author sees, feels and hears to when he experiences them.
One of the traits that a work of literature tries to accomplish is, through its strategic placement of words and punctuations, through the careful selections of the various permutations of those words, and through the shrewd placements of those sentences in the rank monotony of a memoir, the work lets us see beyond the printed pages (or the electronic screens) and guides us carefully through the locales where they are set against, through the dining-rooms where the scenes are enacted, through the wilderness that has solitude written all over it. Harding switches the point of view as often as he ventures on elucidating the white landscapes of the ice-covered terrains. Perspectives are important, so much so the machinations of an epileptic seizure is depicted through multiple accounts. The narrative shifts abruptly from the omniscient third person to first, from past tense to present and from short concise dialogues to long winding sentences.
Tinker-to be occupied with small mechanical works. We all tinker, all perform mechanical work and all dissolve with time or just fade away. Three generations of the Crosby’s and a recurrent theme that binds them all, the truism that, in any other setting, would be deemed farcical and shallow. Every man dies alone and takes not with him an inch of the life that he led. As the moments draw to a close for each of the three Crosby’s, the nigh is not disturbed over the dins of everyday life. Lives around them seem to carry itself around as usual, and they are aware of the very humbling fact. Through the love of each of the three generations – writing, poetry and horology, comparisons are drawn with life and its quintessence solitude.
George Washington Crosby, the narrator and whose memories we dive into, scratch comprehensively and tunnel through, into the minds of his father and his grandfather ‘began to hallucinate eight days before he dies’, we read in the opening lines itself. Piqued, one continues, only to find George, lying on his dining room hospital bed, ignorant and forgetful of the people around him. He notices the carpets and the monotony of his remaining days at times, at others he simply dives into those shards of memories that had long been safely tucked away. We know he is dying and that he is hallucinating, his memories- ‘he remembered many things as he died, but in an order he could not control’ sets the stage for ambitious forays back and forth into the domain of time, ‘showing him a different self every time he tried to make an assessment’. His hallucination, ‘the roof collapsed, sending down a fresh avalanche of wood and nails, tapers and shingles and insulation’ are remarkable expostulations on the vagaries of the dying mind. Picture this- ‘the very blue of the sky followed, draining from the heights into the cluttered concrete socket. 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 fickle narrator whose memory we doubt, three generations of dying alone, the epileptic fits of the father, Howard and the dry, ‘gray’, ‘silvery’ landscape of the cove is material enough for Harding to chisel.
Howard, George’s father, an epileptic ‘tinkerer’ whose job it was to take his carriage drawn by ‘Prince Edward’, and call upon the households for ‘soaps’ and who George remembers mostly around the events of one night that preceded his discovery of his father’s “illness”. The seizures that Howard falls prey to is brought out in its magnificent details even as ‘the world around him spun’. He discovers his father’s illness, his father discovers his mother’s and leaves thereof to a life that is as free as it was chained. George tries to escape too, but fails even as his father wishes ‘secretly’ for the same. Some loose strands make for a Murakami surrealism. The burned down house with the unidentified corpse of the woman and the children are left to view alongside the desertion by the father (or the mother).
In one of the many grandiose scenes, reminiscent of Whitman, a whole house of one Dr. Box is described as being moved about with logs as the wheels. The seizures that Howard experiences, the intricate mechanisms of the clocks- described in bulky detail through passages from an imaginary Horologist manual on clocks, the writings of Howard with ‘Borealis’ as only common theme to distinguish them, the nod to Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the hermitical Gilbert and the Indian Sabbatis all carry little or no symbolic manifestations which are easy to miss. Reading through his interviews, Harding explains that some of the scenes depicted are of pure literary origins, haphazard assimilation of facts (Hawthorne with the wilderness), momoiristic extrapolations (the Horologist’s Rev Kenner Davenport manual on clocks) and personal tributes “How to build a nest” by Howard Anon Crosby. Some representations serve to condense the mystique- the carriage of four horses with the horsemen that comes take away the grandfather is a biblical allusion, apt with him being a minister.
Everything is made to perish; the wonder of anything at all is that it has not already done so – a sense of pall and doom sets in every once in a while. As we enter the minds of George and Howard with equal abandon we are led to a microscopic view of the happenings around them. So the night when George discovers Howard’s epilepsy is the one that stays on in his mind as memories of his father whom he wanted to ‘just go away, not die but just leave’. The escape of Howard to the woods – ‘Sun catches cheap plate flaking- I am a tinker; the moon is an egg glowing in its nest of leafless trees- I am a poet; a brochure for an asylum is on the dresser- I am an epileptic, insane; the house is behind me- I am a fugitive. His despair had not come from the fact that he was a fool; he knew he was a fool. His despair came from the fact that his wife saw him as a fool, as a useless tinker, a copier of bad verse from two- penny religious magazines, an epileptic, and could find no reason to turn her head and see him as something better.’ It’s then, in the midst of his own unraveling that we are transported into the memories of Howard’s father. The genealogy continues.
Nearing the end, we are led to the second life of Howard where he survives and lives with another woman, again possibly an ode to his grandfather through an extrapolation. The end, incorporating a flashback within a flashback is didactic and constitute long winding sentences on theories of life and of death, of memories and of relations, of the craft of clocks and of religion.
Read it, if not for the thoughts, but for the language and the fierce description of his native Maine at West Cove. Read it to understand how narration works differently through different point of views and to realize that despite howsoever you lead your life, you die alone, in the midst of everyone, you die alone.