Tag: Pulitzer Prize


“…so tiny under the wheeling and frozen stars…”

April 14th, 2010 — 8:12pm

Sometimes you just have to cheer because somebody got it right: That’s how I felt on Monday when I heard that Paul Harding’s brilliant, gorgeous first novel, Tinkers, had won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

It is always exciting when a genuinely outstanding book — a real work of art — is recognized for its author’s achievement, but it’s even more gratifying when that book is an underdog: published by a small press (the first small independent press to publish a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel in almost thirty years) and overlooked by many, including the New York Times, which acknowledged its oversight in a somewhat embarrassed-sounding column in The Paper Cuts blog after the Pulitzer announcement. Especially now, when the publishing industry has been so hard hit by the economic crisis, independent bookstores falling like flies and newspaper book reviews as rare as common courtesy, it’s so heartening to everyone invested in the future of books that a novel like Tinkers would get the attention it deserves.

Why is Tinkers so extraordinary and what’s it about? I think the clarity and seemingly effortless lyricism of Harding’s prose is the best answer to that question. An old New Englander who collected and repaired clocks in his retirement – a tinker, like his father — is dying:

“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.”

As George Crosby’s mind wanders in his dying body he imagines not just his own past and present – in a tour de force opening scene he hallucinates that his house and then the entire universe, windowpane by coat closet by cloud by star, collapses in on him as he lies helpless on the hospital bed set up in his living room — but also that of his father, an epileptic who drove a wagon and sold sundries and fixed pots and pans for a living, whose inner life had been unassailable to the young son he left behind when he abandoned the family without a word.  From its description of a father watching his son conduct a private Viking funeral for a mouse to its sensory observations of weather and the changing of seasons, to its acute record of the minutia of family life or detailed instructions on how to build a bird’s nest, every page of Tinkers is dense with scenes and paragraphs and lines so freshly perceived and economically crafted and breathtakingly true – as art, as reflections of humanity — that you want to grab someone and read whole passages aloud.

Here is Paul Harding on what an oncoming epileptic seizure feels like: “The aura, the sparkle and tingle of an oncoming fit, was not the lightning – it was the cooked air that the lightning pushed in front of itself. 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, no cause A that led to effect B, but instead simply A, simply B, with no then in between, and Howard became pure, unconscious energy. It was like the opposite of death, or a bit of the same thing death was, but from a different direction: Instead of being emptied or extinquished to the point of unselfness, Howard was overfilled, overwhelmed to the same state. If death was to fall below some human boundary, so his seizures were to be rocketed beyond it.”

Or pulling the tooth of a crusty old hermit: “Howard could not imagine that this old husk of a man, this recluse who seemed not much more than a sour hank of hair and rags, had a tooth left in his head to ache. . . . squinting to get a good look, [he] saw in that dank, ruined purple cavern, stuck way in the back of an otherwise-empty levy of gums, a single black tooth planted in a swollen and bright red throne of flesh. A breeze caught the hermit’s breath and Howard gasped and saw visions of slaughterhouses and dead pets under porches.”

Or a patient dog lurking near the table during a Christmas dinner: “Buddy the dog sat at attention, as if recommending himself to the ham over the children by his proper manners.”

I particularly love this next scene, in which George Crosby’s father imagines what he might say to one of his hardscrabble customers, the frugal country wives who gazed at his display case of cheap jewelry year after year but never bought anything unnecessary, their lives as meager as their yearnings are unanswered:

“He thought, Buy the pendant, sneak it into your hand from the folds of your dress and let the low light of the fire lap at it late at night as you wait for the roof to give our or your will to snap and the ice to be too thick to chop through with the ax as you stand in your husband’s boots on the frozen lake at midnight, the dry hack of the blade on ice so tiny under the wheeling and frozen stars, the soundproof lid of heaven, that your husband would never stir from his sleep in the cabin across the ice, would never hear and come running, half-frozen, in only his union suit, to save you from chopping a hole in the ice and sliding into it as if it were a blue vein, sliding down into the black, silty bottom of the lake, where you would see nothing, would perhaps only feel the stir of some somnolent fish in the murk as the plunge of you in your wool dress and the big boots disturbed it from its sluggish winter dreams of ancient seas. Maybe you would not even feel that, as you struggled in clothes that felt like cooling tar, and as you slowed, calmed, even, and opened your eyes and looked for a pulse of silver, an imbrication of scales, and as you closed your eyes again and felt their lids turn to slippery, ichthyic skin, the blood behind them suddenly cold, and as you found yourself not caring, wanting, finally, to rest, finally wanting nothing more than the sudden, new, simple hum threading between your eyes. The ice is far too thick to chop through. You will never do it. You could never do it. So buy the gold, warm it with your skin, slip it onto your lap when you are sitting by the fire and all you will otherwise have to look at is your splintery husband gumming chew or the craquelure of your own chapped hands.”

Paul Hardy’s Tinkers is an elegy to the passage of time, the randomness of memory and mortality, the startling grip of what lasts for each of us: a moving and life-affirming lament for  “the loss of this world of light and hope.” Don’t take my word or the Pulitzer committee’s word on it. Go to your neighborhood bookstore and buy a copy and read it for yourself!

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