Review: Tinkers by Paul Harding

Title: Tinkers
Author: Paul Harding
Pages: 192
Genre: Literary Fiction
Release Date: January 1st, 2009
Publisher: Bellevue Literary Press
Source: Personal Copy

Have you ever finished a book, liked it, but didn't even know where to begin when writing a review? That's exactly how I feel about Tinkers. This little story is quiet and subtle, yet so lyrical. At first I was a little bored at the lack of linear plot, but once I let myself focus on the language I was completely enthralled, often turning back, re-reading, and lingering on passages until I felt I had them completely absorbed. So much attention was focused on description, from simple things, like a painting on George's wall, to intricate things, such as nature's beauty. Paul Harding, an unknown author who's unknown work won the Pulitzer, creates such a complex, impressionistic narrative that it's difficult to compose my thoughts eloquently, but here goes.

The opening of the book finds a sick and hallucinating George Washington Crosby lying on a rented hospital bed in the middle of his living room while his family surrounds him. In his final days, George's mind travels in a non-chronological path through his history and memories. The 80-year-old grandfather revisits his disturbing childhood as the son of an epileptic traveling salesman and a young, strict, and cold mother in rural New England . Now begins the descent into a world of isolation, loss, and mortality.

Many of the memories the reader is privy to are told through the viewpoint of George's father, Howard. I thought the descriptions of the experience and pain an epileptic seizure causes for him were some of the most powerful scenes in the book.

Cold hopped onto the tips of his toes and rode on the ripples of the ringing throughout his body until his teeth clattered and his knees faltered and he had to hug himself to keep from unraveling.

The actual seizure was when the bolt touched flesh, and in an instant so atomic, so nearly immaterial, nearly incorporeal, that there was almost no before and after... Howard became pure, unconscious energy.
It is this pain and the community's ignorance surrounding his affliction that causes Howard to make the choices he does. Much of the conflict and heartbreak for father and son could have been avoided with a little education. I can see why a medical press had interest in publishing this work.

I definitely recommend Tinkers for anyone with a love of linguistics. However, this little novel can be deceptive. It is not an easy read and, contrary to the short length, cannot be finished quickly. The characters and plot suffered a bit at the expense of such dense, complex language and lengthy descriptions of mundane items, so I don't think it's something the casual reader would enjoy. Overall, I thought it was an excellent commentary on memory, missed connections, and our own humanity.

Also, there is an excellent interview with Paul Harding done by Open Loop Press. It offers some great insight into the author's thoughts and writing style during the composition of Tinkers.

Rating: 4/5


  1. I think my review of Tinkers had a lot of quotes for just that reason! I really enjoyed this one, and it's one I likely never would have read if not for the Pulitzer (and how excited am I for the announcement of the next Pulitzer Monday? Squee!)

  2. Oh that is beautifully written. I will definitely look this one up, I'm a sucker for beautiful prose.

  3. Despite being pretty much unaware of the subject of the novel, I've seen so many positive reviews that it's been a TBP (to be purchased) title for quite some time. I'm not sure I can handle the intense emotional aspect of any novel at this time, but I'll be sure to pick it up once I feel I'm in the right frame of mind. I'm looking forward to contemplating such dazzling prose.

  4. Carrie - I fall into the category of reading it only because it won the Pulitzer (that and, I'm a little ashamed to admit, because it was so short.) Can't wait to hear about the next Pulitzer either, especially if it is as great as Tinkers!

    Monice - Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts! Sounds like you would definitely enjoy this one.

    Beth - That's really smart of you to wait, I think. I don't think this is a novel that should be started without being able to fully concentrate. I wasn't really aware of the subject either...I guess I was just drawn to the cheap price and the shiny award on the cover.

  5. What a nice review you've put together! Though I think overall you liked Tinkers better than I did, I agree that it's a very worthwhile book. I dog-eared several pages as I was reading to mark some beautiful passages, but I think overall the lovely prose eclipsed everything else about this very quiet book. *new follower*

  6. Thanks so much for your thoughts! I do agree with you about the prose eclipsing something else. I almost wish that Harding had expanded a little bit with the characters/plot. Coupled with the wonderful prose it could have been an even more enjoyable book.

  7. Hi, Jenna and everybody. . .

    Hello. . . I'm Jill McDonough, and I run 24PearlStreet, the Fine Arts Work Center online. And Paul Harding is teaching a class for us, online, starting April 30: it’s called “Ah, Perfection.” Here's a course description and link:

    Perfection is pretty much impossible to achieve for our stories and novels. But it can be a great ideal against which to measure our work, according to which we discipline our prose. Instead of trying to second guess things like “what an editor wants” or “what sells” or “what this or that reader wants,” or anything practical like that at all, let’s take a week and assess a piece of writing according to its value purely as a work of art. That is, let’s take a page from Keats and just think about the truth and beauty of what we’re writing, to the most vigorous, humble, and sophisticated degree we can muster. Instead of looking outward for positive signs, let’s go as deeply as we can into both the writing and our own sense of things, in order to find the (probably mysterious, hopefully irreducible) source – the heart - of the story, the chapter, the scene. Let’s take a week off from the worldly matters of writing and do some art for art’s sake.

    I was thinking you and your readers might want to know about it. . . we are a new program, and are still trying to figure out how to get the word out there. Let me know if you have any ideas, or questions, or anything. . . thanks!

    take care--



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