Tinkers is a novel steeped in, and obsessed with, minutiae. Whether describing the inner workings of a clock, the network of ducts and wires that runs through a home, or the contents of a salesman’s cart, Paul Harding seems to constantly hold a jeweler’s loupe up to the reader’s eye. But rather than giving Tinkers the impersonality of an instruction manual, this level of detail humanizes the objects that his characters lovingly and painstakingly build and repair.
When George Washington Crosby, one of the novel’s two protagonists, hallucinates on his deathbed, he sees the house he built himself collapsing on top of him:
“The second floor fell on him, with its unfinished pine framing and dead-end plumbing (the capped pipes never joined to the sink and toilet he had once intended to install) and racks of old coats and boxes of forgotten board games and puzzles and broken toys and bags of family pictures—some so old they were exposed on tin plates—all of it came crashing down into the cellar, he unable to even raise a hand to protect his face.”
Several times, Harding compares the wires to veins and the insulation to tongues, driving home the meaning: the objects in this world are as alive and precious and detailed as their owners, and if one is known, so is the other.
George’s father, Howard Aaron Crosby, makes his living matching people to objects, driving a wooden wagon full of goods to homes and farms too solitary to obtain them any other way. But, as becomes apparent as the book goes on, wandering and willingness to be distracted are Howard’s true trade:
“Besides fixing pots and selling soap, these are some of the things that Howard did at one time or another on his rounds, sometimes to earn extra money, mostly not: shoot a rabid dog, deliver a baby, put out a fire, pull a rotten tooth, cut a man’s hair, sell five gallons of home-made whiskey for a backwoods bootlegger named Potts, fish a drowned child from the creek.”
We watch the father walk the earth with a sprightliness and a sense of humor that arrives as a welcome reprieve from the death watch over George taking place in the novel’s more recent past. It’s a striking, backward tack: When Howard returns home, encountering young George is somewhat like encountering a ghost, and it is George who plays the part of father, calming his brother with his blanket and his sisters with a cold cloth to the forehead and a trip to bed, respectively. In contrast, Howard here is the flawed younger man who takes every side road and collects flowers for his wife instead of selling his wares.
Howard also suffers from epilepsy, an affliction he and his wife, Kathleen, hide from the children. George witnesses his father’s illness only once, at a Christmas dinner, and he attempts to help, getting his fingers nearly bitten off in the process. In his old age, George’s body betrays him as well, turning him into the equivalent of one of the objects he tends to. The failings of the human machinery fascinate Harding as much as the beauty of a field in the late afternoon or a pond in the quiet of the woods:
“Lack of exercise may have been the reason that, when he had his first radiation treatment for the cancer in his groin, his legs swelled up like two dead seals on a beach and then turned as hard as lumber. Before he was bedridden, he walked as if he were an amputee from a war that predated modern prosthetics; he tottered as if two hardwood legs hinged with iron pins were buckled to his waist.”
Tinkers does not have a plot in the traditional sense. Instead, Harding winds the gears and cogs of memories and experiences and lets them turn for the reader’s consideration. The story comes in layers and images, the recollections of a dying man who, like Harding, is in no hurry to get where he’s going. This excellent debut proves Harding to be a writer of exceptional poise, possessing clear-eyed skill and, like his characters, a steady hand for the finest of details.