Tinkers by Paul Harding

★★★★★ (5/5)

Read this and tell me, does it not rattle your bones, wrinkle your brain with the sheer beauty and lyrical intensity of words? Let yourself be moved by the magnificence of its subject matter. Does it not invite you to tremble upon the pursuit of power, its inanity, its brevity? Does it not invoke in you a jarring, precipitous sense to seek beauty which must be sought consciously, lest we forget? Does it not make you ponder on the ebb and flow of histories through time? And deliberate upon your own inevitable, timely end?

“O, Senator, drop your trousers! Loosen your cravat! Eschew your spats and step into the shallow, teeming world of mayflies and dragonflies and frogs’ eyes staring eye-to-eye with your own, and the silty bottom. Cease your filibuster against the world God gave you. Enough of your clamor, your embarrassing tendencies, your crooking of paths in the nature of straightness. Enough of your calling ruin upon the Moor and the Hindoo, the Zulu and the Hun. None of it gains you a jot. Behold, and be a genius! At a breath, I shall disperse your world, your monuments of metal, your monuments of stone and your brightly striped rags. They will scatter like so many pins and skittles. I shall tire myself more quenching a candle in its sconce. Phew! There: you are gone.”

Tinkers by Paul Harding was poetry in prose, poetry in motion. Intense, lyrical and profound. Reminiscent of Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion (review) in prose style, Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude (review) in its memories and William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (review) and Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road (review) in the plight of poverty. This is a powerful page-turner. George Washington Crosby’s time towards demise is an unraveling of his life and that of his own father, and by extension, his grandfather.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

  • He had built the house himself-poured the foundation, raised the frame, joined the pipes, run the wires, plastered the walls, and painted the rooms
  • he or they facsimiles of former, actual things.
  • Next fell the stars, tinkling about him like the ornaments of heaven shaken loose. Finally, the black vastation itself came untacked and draped over the entire heap, covering George’s confused obliteration
  • The universe’s time cannot be marked thusly. Such a crooked and flimsy device could only keep the fantastic hours of unruly ghosts
  • But George forgave his mother her contrary heart. Whenever he thought about what her bitter laments sought to stanch, he was overtaken by tears and paused, looking up from the headlines of the morning paper, to lean over and kiss her camphored brow
  • Although he had not sat in the Queen Anne chair since he quit smoking his pipes, there remained a sort of shadow of his outline on the fabric of the chair’s backrest
  • of the clocks in the room had wound down-the tambours and carriage clocks on the mantel
  • Viennese regulator on the walls, the Chelsea ship’s bells on the rolltop desk, the ogee on the end table, and the seven-foot walnut-cased Stevenson grandfather’s clock
  • preferred the blank space the old man actually seemed to inhabit; he liked to think of some fold in the woods, some seam that only the hermit could sense and slip into, where the ice and snow, where the frozen forest itself, would accept him and he would no longer need fire or wool blankets, but instead flourish wreathed in snow, spun in frost, with limbs like cold wood and blood like frigid sap
  • Even the flies were solicitous of their sponsor’s pain and seemed to buzz more gingerly about him
  • Gilbert opened his mouth and Howard, squinting to get a good look, 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
  • The bark of birches peels like parchment. 2. Fireflies blink in the thick grass and form halos around hedges. 3. The spaces between the trees look like glowing coals
  • The reasonable, sensitive soul who perhaps one day while taking his rest along the banks of a bubbling brook came to hear, in that half-dream, half-wakeful state during which so many men seem most receptive to perceiving the pulleys and winches that hoist the clouds, the heavenly bellows that push the winds, the cogs and wheels that turn the globe, came to hear a regularity in the silvery song of water over pebbles, that soul is unknown to us
  • Wind combed through the fir trees around the rim of the pond like a rumor, like the murmur of old men muttering about the storm behind the mountain. The storm came up from behind the mountain, shrouding the peak. Lightning crawled down the mountain and drank at the water, lapped the shallows with electric tongues
  • and that phenomenon, of becoming conscious, was the very thing that whisked him away, so that any bit of insight or gleaning was available only in retrospect, as a sort of afterglow that remained but that was not accessible through words
  • Your cold mornings are filled with the heartache about the fact that although we are not at ease in this world, it is all we have, that it is ours but that it is full of strife, so that all we can call our own is strife; but even that is better than nothing at all, isn’t it?
  • Buddy the Dog sat at attention, as if recommending himself to the ham over the children by his proper manners
  • It is winter because she lies awake with a bare heart, trying to remember a fuller season
  • Her stern manner and her humorless regime mask bitterness far deeper than any of her children or her husband imagine. She has never recovered from the shock of becoming a wife and then a mother
  • So there is my son, hiding behind the last vestige of a house transformed from timber into ash into the dimming memories of those who still remember it
  • God know my shame as I push my mule to exhaustion, even after the moon and Venus have risen to preside over the owls and mice, because I am not going back to my family-my wife, my children-because my wife’s silence is not the forbearance of decent, stern people who fear You; it is the quiet of outrage, of bitterness. It is the quiet of biding time. God forgive me. I am leaving.
  • Howard thought, Is it not true: A move of the head, a step to the left or right, and we change from wise, decent, loyal people to conceited fools?
  • Sun catches cheap plate flaking-I am a tinker; the moon is an egg glowing in its nest of leafless trees-I am a poet; a brochure for an asylum is on the dresser-I am an epileptic, insane; the house is behind me-I am a fugitive
  • The forgotten songs we never really knew, only think we remember knowing, when what we really do is understand at the same time how we have never really known them at all and how glorious they must really be
  • The end came when we could no longer even see him, but felt him in brief disturbances of shadows or light, or as a slight pressure, as if the space one occupied suddenly had had something more packed into it, or we’d catch some faint scent out of season, such as the snow melting into the wool of his winter coat
  • It seemed to me that even if I could pick an apple up with my failing hands, how could I bite it with my dissipating teeth, digest it with my ethereal gut? I realized that this thought was not my own but, rather, my father’s, that even his ideas were leaking out of his former self
  • I feel sorrow so deep, it must be love
  • I remember squatting in the grass several yards from where the Indian worked, trying to learn what I might, which was nothing, but still something I felt compelled to do, as if my lesson was no more than the effort I made
  • He seemed to me as old as light and just as diffuse.
  • and they themselves eventually came to seem men who stood astride the old world of fire and flood and the new one of production quotas and commodities markets.
  • so does man squirm and fret on the dusty skin of our earth, ignorant of the purpose of the world, indeed, the cosmos, beyond the fact that there is one, assigned by God and known only to Him, and that it is good and that it is terrifying and that it is ineffable and that only rational faith can soothe the desperate pains and woes
  • that is how the living prepare, or attempt to prepare, for the unknowable was-by imagining was as it is still approaching; perhaps that is more true, that they mourn because of the inevitability of was and apply their own, human, terrors about their own wases to the it
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