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Books You Should Read: Tinkers, by Paul Harding

tinkers coverIt was deep winter and dark seventeen hours a day. I was up every two to three hours with my newborn son who had a tongue tie and was not gaining enough weight. There was so little day to confuse with night that neither of us felt the gradual shift toward light for weeks. The days were all the same day, and I marked time by reading memoirs (Auster, Sedaris, Patti Smith), and then books written by people I know. I needed something more than a personal narrative sitting beside me. I needed a face I recognized. So I began reading Paul Harding’s Tinkers.

I am finicky about fiction: I decide whether I am going to read a novel based on reading the first paragraph and the last paragraph. Yes, I am one of those people who reads the end of the book first. The Greeks knew their stories before seeing them on stage. It wasn’t about finding out what happens, it was about experiencing what happens. I want the end of a book to open up instead of shut down. I want to be sent out and back, back to the beginning. I want a book to promise me something more–of itself, of myself–at another time. The thing is: after reading the last paragraph of a book, it actually slips away. This act of forgetting is key to the pleasure I get from reading fiction. I’ve been doing this little ritual for years, but only recently have I reflected on why. Reading the beginning, then the end, and then the whole book creates a future moment in which I come back to a place I knew before but have forgotten. As I start counting down the remaining pages, there’s an anticipation of return. “In my end is my beginning,” as Eliot says.

Tinkers is about George Washington Crosby’s final days. The two main narrative strands focus on George’s own experiences as a repairer of clocks, and the story of his father, a nineteenth-century peddler who sold small trinkets and household goods from a wagon. As George drifted in and out of consciousness, I shared his private world of thinking, remembering, and reliving. When I woke up and sat in the same chair in the same place with the same child and listened to George’s thoughts, there was something coalescing: time blurred, and we were both out of our minds.

George’s reveries are bright flashes of memory, constellations slowly orbiting the inevitable pull toward death. My favorites are those in which detailed descriptions of the New England landscape open up like apertures on a moment of private revelation. George’s father, Howard, suffered from seizures at a time when little was known about them. Howard bites George’s hand during a fit, and his mother takes her son to see a doctor. But George is only allowed to lurk at the edge of the real conversation about having Howard committed to an asylum. After the visit to the doctor, the family is home waiting for Howard to finish his rounds:

The sun was going down. It sank into the stand of beech trees beyond the back lot, lighting their tops, so that their bare arterial branches turned to a netting of black vessels around brains made of light. The trees lolled under the weight of those luminescent organs growing at the tops of their slender trunks. The brains murmured among themselves. They kept counsel and possessed a wintery wisdom–cold scarlet and opaline minds, brief and burnished, flaring in the metallic blue of dusk. And then they were gone. The light drained from the sky and the trees and funneled to a point on the western horizon, where it seemed to be swallowed by the earth. The branches of the trees were darkness over the lesser dark of dusk. Kathleen thought, That is like Howard’s brain–lit and used up and then dark. Lit too brightly. How much light does the mind need? Have use for? Like a room full of lamps. Like a brain full of light.

picasso motherWhat strikes me here (aside from its Blakean resonance) is the quiet, understated diction that yokes together trees and brains and animates them. These tree-brains share a secret knowledge that gleams and then is gone. Howard’s wife, Kathleen, likens this vision to what happens in her husband’s brain when he has a seizure. But then the image collapses: Howard’s seizures are not like this sunset because they threaten to breach the limit of his physical (body) and domestic (marriage) spaces. The light that dazzles and gently fades in nature is too bright, too full in Howard’s room-brain.

Howard abandons his family once he learns of his wife’s plans to commit him. He sees his son once more when he appears at George’s house for a brief, unanticipated visit at Christmas in 1953. George returns to this moment and to his father in his final memory which allows him to reflect on how he sees himself:

Thought that he was a clock was like a clock was like a spring in a clock when it breaks and explodes when he had his fits. But he was not like a clock or at least was only like a clock to me. But to himself? Who knows? And so it is not he who was like a clock but me.

We return, like George does, to moments and relive them with the knowledge we have gained by living past them. Memory heightens the distance between our position as participant and observer. The desire to know and truly understand another is always filtered through the lens of our desire to know ourselves. And there is a multiplicity of selves as we look back, surely.

George and his father were both gone. My son and I were surviving his birth, beginning our journey of knowing each other, ourselves. I will come back to Tinkers and read it again. My son will be older, I will be different. I will remember myself now reaching out, learning how to be both a parent and a child.


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