Paul Harding’s debut novel, Tinkers, won the Pulitzer Prize last year. The Pulitzer has been awarded to novelists with distinct voices as of late, and Harding fits this cast. He writes from the perspective of George Crosby, a mender of clocks, or Howard Crosby (George’s father), who suffered from epilepsy with equal aplomb.
The novel begins with a startling line, reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.” Harding goes on to weave George’s life with his father’s life, in a wonderful mosaic of memory and mundane events. We see Howard become increasingly distant from his family as he suffers from lightning strikes of epilepsy, we see George and his complicated relationship with his father, we see them both at times of work and play and wonder.
Indeed, throughout the book is a permeating sense of wonder. Harding especially develops the themes of light and darkness — nothing new but effective nonetheless. Throughout the entire novel, light constantly filters through cracks and enters into our world: light from an Unknown or Wonder or God that we never quite see, but certainly see the wonder in looking over a country meadow or the light dripping in through cracks of an old woodshed.
And we learn to fear the dark. At one point, a man goes crazy after the sun doesn’t shine for months; he burns down his house and himself in a final blaze of light, but not true light. Or, we see Howard’s epilepsy as an interesting play between light and dark, and it strikes like lightning, yet, there is some room behind it of inner darkness. The book works not because it has created new images and themes, but because it describes so well the interplay of light and dark in our own lives: it forces us to stop and see the mundane events of our daily lives with cosmic significance.
Mostly, however, it is a book of memory:
George Crosby remembered many things as he died, but in an order he could not control. To look at his life, to take the stock he always imagined a man would, at his end, was to witness a shifting mass, the tiles of a mosaic spinning, swirling, reportraying, always in recognizable swaths of colors, familiar elements, molecular units, intimate currents, but also independent now of his will, showing him a different self every time he tried to make an assessment.
And so we are. Harding shows a man who is the product of his memories, as we are the product of our memories. Yet, George does not merely remember the beautiful or tragic moments, but the insignificant moments as well, moments imbued with light even though it was not discernible at the time.
The novel works because it shows us this truth: we are all such a product, of beautiful and tragic and quotidian moments that make us who we are. It calls forth wonderfully modern questions as how we remember and why we remember and who we are because we remember.
Though the book only deals obliquely with religion (Howard’s father is a minister), any one of the religious persuasion sees truth embodied throughout. Religious holidays or observances or tenets are often reminders to remember, and we are constantly called to remember because it determines who we are. If we do not remember God’s actions, then we cease to become followers of God. If we do not constantly set them before us as a beautiful tapestry, then we lose our identity. Memory works as a tapestry or mosaic: it is not linear in the way that we like to make it linear, fitting neatly on a page of paper, but rather it spills over with images and smells and sounds all at once or out of order. As Faulkner wrote eighty years ago in “A Rose for Emily,”
The very old men..believing that they had danced with her and courted her perhaps, confusing time with its mathematical progression, as the old do, to whom all the past is not a diminishing road but, instead, a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches…
Thus is the memory of all of us. And, we ignore our memories at our peril, but rather must seek to capture them as we capture all thoughts, to see the wonder and the working of our memories aright, to remember who we are based on from where we came. America lacks a certain memory, and we lack a certain part of our identity as a result.
Tinkers: it is a beautiful and stylish little book. In its eulogy it is a celebration of life, as the best eulogies are, and a reminder to wonder and to remember. We forget who we are otherwise.
May we remember: remember what our God has done for the generations before us, what our God has done in our lives, so that we may better know who we are today.