Paul Harding’s first novel Tinkers, published in 2009 and winning the 2010 Pulitzer Prize For Fiction, is not a ‘plot based’ book; it’s more experiential than that. The first sentence, “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died”, is a succinct synopsis, and gives readers a fairly sufficient idea of the plot to follow. The story takes place mostly within George’s mind as he relives his life, focusing on relationships with his family as he lies on his deathbed. However, the beauty of the novel is found within Harding’s language and the metaphysical concepts relayed within.
Jumping through time and point of view, Harding weaves reality and hallucinations together in the beautiful medley of a dying man’s thoughts. Tinkers explores our own mortality and the lingering effects we have on the world we leave behind in staggering prose. George, contemplating how he will be remembered, describes: “to my great-grandchildren…I will be no more than the smoky arrangement of a set of rumors, and to their great grandchildren I will be no more than a tint of some obscure color.” Harding has an incredible talent for putting readers inside the mind of eccentric, insightful, and most of all human characters. The language he uses brings us closer to a true understanding of what it means to be a person living (or dying) in confusing times.
I would argue Tinkers is primarily about beauty, and Harding’s language enables him to inspire appreciation for not only the larger concepts tackled within the novel, but also the mundane, every day occurrences that shape our lives. His mastery of personal description allows readers to experience the world from the characters’ points of view, and encourages appreciation of the smaller things in life. Parts of the book are eerily experiential, and the more involved with the characters you become, the easier it is to get lost in their minds and their world. Routine happenings (scenery on walks, subtle feelings during conversation, minute physical textures and sensations) often lost to memory are revealed in a way that illuminates the significance of tiny details, the fleeting moments of pleasure, pain or curiosity that create a lasting impression long after the grander picture of a day’s plotline has faded in our minds.
The way Harding jumps back and forth in time is akin to the stream of consciousness writing found in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, but in Tinkers it serves a different function. By telling a story in short, episodic segments, Harding tells his audience that these final memories are what matters. The novel relays George’s life as he remembers it. Even if those memories may not have the most profound impact on the world at large, they are what remain of George’s life in his final days; to him these are the most significant things of all.
Tinkers is about the experiences that shape our lives. While describing existences that may, from another point of view, seem dull and routine, Harding infuses the lived reality of George with a realism and depth of emotion that forces readers to acknowledge the meaning of everything they encounter. No matter who we are, this life that we live is the only one we have, and Tinkers asserts that every second of it is worth experiencing, in all of is splendor, sorrow and uncertainty.