Paul Harding's first novel Tinkers was the surprise winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. From the bare bones of an old family story, Harding has fashioned a meditation on the mysteries of family, life, and nature in which epilepsy plays a central role.
As 80-year-old George Washington Crosby lies dying of renal failure, he begins to hallucinate and drifts back to when he was twelve and his father Howard abandoned the family.
Howard Crosby was a tinker and a not very successful traveling salesman in rural Maine, delivering goods from a mule-drawn wagon. He was kind, mystical, and deeply in touch with nature. Aware of how much he has come down in the world, he was filled with “resentment at the ache in his heart that this world of strife is all we have.” He was also epileptic.
Howard's usual aura began with ringing in his ears and “a cold halo of chemical electricity.” Though he did not remember his seizures, he thought of them as “a secret door that opened on its own to an electrical storm.” While Howard imagined that his epilepsy might be a gift of brief contact with “the raw stuff of the cosmos,” in which he becomes “pure, unconscious energy,” he was also afraid. It seemed as though some malevolent force was lying in wait, “which his passing would trigger to spring, to explode, and to impale him.” One several occasions he returned hours late, after awakening in a freezing field confused, disheveled, and bloody. Luckily his mule knew the way home.
Howard's wife Kathleen tried to act as if his seizures didn't exist and hid them from the children. Humorless and bitter at her lot in life, she convinced herself that her strictness with her children was in fact love.
When Howard had a seizure in front of the whole family during Christmas dinner, Kathleen decided that she could bear no more. She left a brochure for the state hospital for the “feebleminded and insane” on her dresser, and within days Howard drove south and embarked on a new life in Philadelphia. The year was 1926.
George had no way of knowing about his father's anguish or his subsequent successful career and second marriage. The reader learns all this, and in many ways the novel reveals more about the father than the son.
Howard's childhood was traumatic in a different way. His father was a minister who gradually became “unhitched from our world” by mental illness. When Howard's mother finally can no longer cope, she had her husband taken away. Feeling as if he were in a dream, Howard wandered deep into the woods searching for his father and, in the course of his ordeal, experienced his first seizures.
George's long life is described only in outline. He attended engineering school, became a math teacher and later a school counselor. He enjoyed fly fishing, poker, and travel. He hated exercise and developed heart disease, diabetes, Parkinson disease, and cancer. His own marriage has been long and happy, and his devoted family keeps vigil at his bedside.
George, too, is a tinker, a man of infinite patience who not only built his own house but has also enjoyed a successful second career repairing antique clocks. Over the decades, he “never permitted himself to imagine his father,” although sometimes he imagined the seizures were “like a spring in a clock when it breaks and explodes.” Many seemingly simple things take on larger significance through repetition and variation.
George's achievements in overcoming his impoverished childhood and building a successful life are apparent by implication, including the grief and care of his family as he is allowed to die, as many might wish to do, at home with his familiar things around him.
Tinkers is a short book but challenging to read. While Harding's treatment of epilepsy on both the physical and psychological levels is a tour de force, be forewarned that the narrative is oblique and nonlinear, told in multiple voices. Much of the writing is dreamlike, moving and sad. Harding conveys the bleak beauty of the New England landscape, the effects of light and the rigors of rural life in poetic language that invites rereading. On the other hand, page-long complex sentences can become exasperating.
The story unfolds in vignettes that jump around in time and are interspersed with excerpts from two other books. The first is a fictional 18th century manual on clock repair, The Reasonable Horologist, which subscribes to the Enlightenment view of Creation as a great machine whose meaning is only partly comprehensible to man. There are also musings from a notebook, possibly written by George, containing ideas very similar to his father's mystical conception of nature. Whether these are George's own memories or hallucinations is never clarified.
Tinkers is unusual enough that Harding could not find a commercial publisher. Fortunately, he came to the attention of Bellevue Literary Press, a nonprofit project of the New York University School of Medicine. Their mission is to publish “literary and authoritative fiction and nonfiction at the nexus of arts and sciences, with a special focus on medicine.” This is the first Pulitzer Prize awarded to a book from a small, independent press and, although Tinkers was not widely reviewed initially, it has appeared on several lists of the 2010 best books.
If you prefer action thrillers for your leisure reading, Tinkers is not the book for you. If you are willing to linger over gorgeous writing and ponder not only epilepsy but also more cosmic themes, often just visible from the corner of your eye, you may find the book original and rewarding.
Dr. McCammon is a voluntary associate clinical professor of neurology at the University of California-San Diego.