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Books: Too Much Tinkering In Prize-Winning ‘Tinkers’

At 191-pages, not-quite 5 x 7 inches in size, and with a lone person tromping through snow on the cover, “Tinkers” by Paul Harding is so darling, I couldn’t wait to read it.

The title is terribly sweet—sweet enough that a friend mentioned it would be the perfect name for a puppy. And the hype didn’t hurt, either: this year’s Pulitzer winner was picked up by a very small and very young publishing house, the Bellevue Literary Press, after the author received enough rejection letters to make a lesser writer want to throw her laptop onto a bonfire.

This guy was an underdog and who doesn’t root for the underdog? I snatched the book from my editor’s hands and upon opening it, felt immediately like Wile E. Coyote after running obliviously off the edge of a cliff. Ah, yes. Gravity!

Despite all appearances, “Tinkers” is in no way a light read and deep down, I knew that (the Pulitzer is a pretty big hint to this reality. It’s not like Stephanie Meyer has one of those). In fact, it is so giant, so heavy and so complex it almost defies description. Big or not, I really did want to like this book: and I tried hard to.

“Tinkers” is the dirge-like story of George Washington Crosby, a clock fixer, who lies dying on a hospital bed in his living room. While the novel is anchored in the last eight days of Crosby’s life and held up against the very literal backdrop of the machinations of time, it moves like steadily flowing water across generations.

Told from many different viewpoints, this story of life and death and love and loss, is mainly about Crosby, his epileptic father, and his mentally ill grandfather.

To be sure, Harding is a gifted writer. The story here is evocative and poignant as he gets to the core (with quite a bit of meandering around it) of this fleeting thing called life. He is at times economical and direct, at others, vivid and descriptive, the latter in an almost neurotic, OCD kind of way.

And while parts of this novel are unarguably beautiful, I couldn’t get past an overwhelming sense that the author was showing off.

Not only does he employ differing points of view throughout this little book, but he jumps from first person to third person to second person back to first person back to third, oh! Back to first again…you get the picture.

He has sentences so long that he gives Jose Saramago (“Blindness”) a run for his money. And like Saramago, Harding has—sigh—no use for quotations in his dialogue, a choice that could, in deft hands, serve the disoriented mood of the story. Here, it seems to serve to further the author’s look-ma-no-hands! cry for attention. Either way, it’s a fad that can go away now, please.

And, finally, on page 119—when I couldn’t determine whether artistic license or a typo was the reason a parenthetical within a parenthetical wasn’t closed—I could no longer contain my love-hate relationship with this book.

All of the gimmickry taken together seemed like too much effort. I was exhausted from reading and had to rest every three or four pages. It probably didn’t help that I kept picturing the author holding a long narrow stick in each hand and spinning Royal Albert China plates on the ends of them while balancing on one foot and singing “Time In A Bottle.”

Then again, perhaps I’m not a serious enough person for this kind of book. Perhaps I should get a real dog, name him Tinkers and wait breathlessly for the next "Twilight" novel.

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