Book Review: “Tinkers” by Paul Harding

In the style of The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy, L’Etranger by Albert Camus, and Native Son by Richard Wright, Tinkers by Paul Harding is a novel about death. It’s a story of the connected lives of a generation of men, from grandfather to father to dying son, and, ultimately, it’s the story of each man’s death. Most books that are about death are also about life – in L’Etranger, Meursault never learns to live fully until he’s in prison anticipating his death sentence; Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie (which was required reading for me high school) involves a dying man teaching a younger man how to live life – but Tinkers is an exception to that rule. It’s not really about living at all, except insofar as living is a pre-requisite to dying. It’s about dying, in all its wonderful, absurd, tragic, beautifully necessary glory. 

Tinkers begins with George Crosby, the youngest of the three men who are discussed in some detail in the story. George is on his deathbed, dying of cancer and kidney failure. He hallucinates that his house is falling in on him, and there begins the vivid, similarly hallucinatory experience that is the rest of the novel. The novel primarily alternates back and forth between George and his father Howard, with a dip into Howard’s story of his relationship with his own father, whose name is never mentioned. It’s a story that alternates between a sort of tangible reality, real things happening to real people, and a sort of dream-world wherein spirits cross into our world, men see visions of times past or yet to come, and the real sentimentality of the book is opened at our feet.

One of my favorite parts of the novel is when Howard, as he’s leaving his family and his eldest son, feels obliged to give his son one last sort of portrait of his own father, which is how we come to reflect upon a generation of men. It’s an interesting part of the book, not least because Howard, mourning his father’s death (he has actually been taken to a madhouse, but it’s sort of a spiritual death, and certainly a death-event in Howard’s life), decides to sit in a muddy pond with only his head above the water for an entire night in the hopes of getting a glimpse of his father, who has been “fading” out of time and out of life.

He leaked out of the world gradually, though. At first, he seemed merely vague or peripheral. But then he could no longer furnish the proper frame for his clothes … The end came when we could no longer even see him, but felt him in brief disturbances of shadows or light, or as a slight pressure, as if the space one occupied suddenly had had some-thing more packed into it, or we’d catch some faint scent out of season, such as the snow melting into the wool of his winter coat, but on a blistering august noon, as if the last few times I felt him as another being rather than as a recollection, he had thought to check up on this world at the wrong moment and accidentally stepped from whatever wintry place he was straight into the dog days.

Howard’s determination to find his father, despite his leaking out of the world, leads to a hallucinatory night almost underwater. He encounters his father, like Tantalus of Greek mythology, striving to grasp at a piece of fruit.

Each time he tried to grab a piece of fruit, it eluded him, or I might say he eluded it, as his grasp was no stronger than a draft of air threading through a crack in a window. He succeeded once, after appearing to concentrate for a moment, in upsetting an apple from its place at the top of the pile, but it merely tumbled down along the backs of the other apples and came to rest against the mouth of the barrel.

And, of course, my favorite quote from the book, the one which makes the book worth reading just to understand the proper context behind this passage:

Perhaps they already were all of these things and my father’s fading was because he realized this: My goodness, I am made from planets and wood, diamonds and orange peels, now and then, here and there; the iron in my blood was once the blade of a Roman plow; peel back my scalp and you will see my cranium covered in the scrimshaw carved by an ancient sailor who never suspected that he was whittling my skull–no, my blood is a Roman plow, my bones are being etched by men with names that mean sea wrestler and ocean rider and the pictures they are making are pictures of northern stars at different seasons, and the man keeping my blood straight as it splits the soil is named Lucian and he will plant wheat, and I cannot concentrate on this apple, this apple, and the only thing common to all of this is that I feel sorrow, so deep it must be love, and they are upset because while they are carving and plowing they are troubled by visions of trying to pick apples from barrels.

This is the nature of dying and rebirth, says Paul Harding, which to me seems perhaps the best, perhaps the only sort of meaning there is in life and death.

This falls into the category of some other books I’ve read, like Luminarium, that is, books that are worth reading for the beauty in them but occasionally get bogged down in the swamps. Skip those parts, and you’ll be more than glad you read the rest. I’ll give this one 3.5/5 stars, and I’d round it up to 4 if I had to.

If you enjoyed what you read here, I’d love it if you’d check out my debut novel, The Sowing, a science fiction dystopia about a girl named Remy trying to avenge her sister’s murder, and a boy named Vale trying to find out why the girl he loved disappeared three years ago. If that sounds interesting to you, click the link for more information: