By **Rachel Louise Ensign**
Almost as fantastic as Tinkers’ actual narrative is that of its Pulitzer Prize win. This novel by Paul Harding was published by Bellevue Literary Press, a tiny non-profit outfit associated with New York University’s medical school. The initial print run was three thousand five hundred and Harding’s advance was one thousand dollars. Slowly, word of the book’s rich prose began spreading—mostly by word-of-mouth. First, it received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, then it gained a foothold in independent bookstores on the West Coast. Harding held Q & A sessions in readers’ homes. Shortly thereafter it got rave reviews in major publications. But Harding remained an outsider—when the book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year—the first novel from a small press to do so in thirty years—no one called to tell him. He found out by checking the Pulitzer Prize website.
In many ways, this novel lives up to its Cinderella story. It is unique, captivating, and a measure more magical than most other contemporary novels. Tinkers is a finely rendered tale of a father and son. George and Howard Crosby exist mostly in separate, but twin, narratives that reflect their tragic inability to connect with one another. George, the son, lies dying in his living room, lucidly recollecting his boyhood, while, Howard, the father, goes about his daily life in the first half of the twentieth century, peddling goods in the stark Maine countryside and suffering from sudden epileptic seizures. Harding has subtly shaped these two narratives to echo one another and exist in a complex but near-perfect rendering of time.
Within the shapely narrative are gems of descriptions and leaps of creativity. The leafless trees at sunset “kept counsel and possessed a wintry wisdom—cold scarlet and opaline minds, brief and burnished, flaring in the metallic blue of dusk. And then they were gone.” The novel veers into the fantastical—when Howard’s father becomes a literal phantom, Harding makes it seem believable. Howard goes looking for his father in the woods and imagines “breaking an ear from its stalk, peeling its husk, and finding my father’s teeth lining the cob.” Harding also sprinkles in excerpts from a clock-repair manual and some sort of encyclopedia of astronomy. Instead of being dry, these passages are unexpectedly apt.
This novel about the Crosby family seems to exist in its own bubble of familial tragedy. It doesn’t connect to “the rest of the world” in the same way that other contemporary novels do. But one of the best things about Tinkers is the precise care with which Harding details the Crosbys’ rural life. Tinkers gives readers a powerful sense of one part of “the rest of the world”: the part of the United States that, until recently, felt so very far away from everything else. Here, people lived close to the land with very little and a family’s closeness was something quite different.
Rachel Louise Ensign is an editorial assistant at Guernica. Read her last recommendation here.