Litstack rec | Tinkers & Sistersong

by Tee Tate

Tinkers, by Paul Harding

Paul Harding’s Tinkers, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010, tells of George Washington Crosby, a mechanical draftsman by trade but whose real love is clocks. The novel charts George’s final eight days in a hospital bed in his living room, and while relations come to pay their respects, showing us the caliber of relationships, good and bad, close and distant, the real action takes place in George’s head. At this point in his life, hallucinations have overtaken reality and drawn a barrier, separating him from the events of the lifestream around him, bringing back keen memories. Those memories center on his father, who was a tinker—a now-vanished occupation of mending metalware, usually on a traveling basis.

Here’s George remembering his father:

He tinkered. Tin pots, wrought iron. Solder melted and cupped in a clay dam. Quicksilver patchwork. Occasionally, a pot hammered back flat, the tinkle of tin sibilant, tiny beneath the lid of the boreal forest.

Sound, Image, and Scale

The job description of a tinker becomes lovely, a passage you want to linger over. The “quicksilver patchwork,” the “tinkle of tin.” Harding is a writer who on a fundamental level understands sensory detail. He shows us not only the visually decisive “pot hammered flat,” but also the more nuanced sound of the tinker’s work, “sibilant, tiny beneath the lid of boreal forest.” And while this passage, with its effortless construction, could alone justify praise, the language, even in these quick lines, has a unified conceptual design. In the image of a tinker’s work sounding through the snowy woods, what other term could there be upon the forest but a lid? In two clauses of less than twenty words, there is sound, image, and the tremendous scale of a small act and its small sound lodged in a great natural space.

“We are beings who experience our selves in time and space, through our senses,” Harding has said, a quality his superlative prose more than demonstrates.

A Writer Influenced by Theology

Harding, who grew up “knocking around the woods” in Essex County, Massachusetts, started out as the drummer for the band Cold Water Flat, whose style has been described as part of the “Nirvana-fueled hype machine of the early ‘90s.” The band would release two LPs, and tour in the US and Europe. Meanwhile, Harding, as a student at UMass Amherst, would change paths after reading Carlos Fuentes’ Terra Nostra. Soon after, he entered the Iowa Writers

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Paul Harding

Workshop, studying with Marilynne Robinson. Like Robinson, Harding is a writer whose work is influenced by theology, a direction that informs prose with an elegant austerity and a focus on the transcendent.

Tinkers, both in form and content, centers on this meditation of the transcendent. George in his final days encounters a reckoning, a pure recollection of what has stayed with and imprinted him in life. The clock ticks, the pages turn, the story proceeds. Though reading Harding’s prose, you might wish the story would never end.

Read 5 Writing Tips from Paul Harding at Publishers Weekly.

—Lauren Alwan

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