Times Ticking Past Ahead: Tinkers by Paul Harding
“Remember the night of deliverance when – your unraveled body falling away like a veil – you breathed a little of the incorruptible air; and remember the sticky animals that seized you again”
- René Daumal
If Cyndi Lauper were to write a novel, I doubt it would read anything like Paul Harding’s Tinkers. Still, reading the novel, I can’t help but think just how much Lauper’s song “Time after Time” is a perfect microcosm of Harding’s Pulitzer Prize winning opus. I can hear the calls of “sacrilege!” ringing out throughout the tinny tubes of the interwebs, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Tinkers is about connections, and how they hold our lives, our minds, and the very universe itself together. So it’s only natural that my brain tracks this seminal work to something as random as an 80’s hit pop song, right? Tinkers is a meditation on the life of one family, specifically, a father and son, and their nearly lifelong disconnection and eventual reunion. Harding tinkers with the connections between man and mind, father and son, husband and wife, time and timelessness, with the same steady handedness that the horologist protagonist, George Washington Crosby utilizes in the taking-apart and putting-back-together-again of the guts of clocks.
The sublimity and clarity of Harding’s narrative occurs precisely everywhere, everywhen. His prose shines bright as an epileptic’s fit, specifically that of Howard Aaron Crosby, a tinker and George’s estranged father, whose life we see in flashback, reverse engineered for our reading pleasure. We even get a glimpse of his relationship with his father, burrowing further and further into this wormhole of family and time. Harding takes care to craft his singular mix of prose and poetry with the elegance and precision expected of one attempting to measure life and the universe with the gilded calipers of his words, to borrow an image from William James’ painting Urizen as the Creator of the World. The written word, here, takes the place of law and reason on either side of those mythic calipers. But what does it mean to measure a man, a life, or a universe? For Harding, that means taking apart the mystery, to see what makes it tick, but never giving away its secrets. He keeps those locked up in the imaginal realm, somewhere between the forests of cognition through which Crosby rides and the rivers of the unconscious through which the reader must wade.
“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. Tinkerbird, coppersmith, but mostly a brush and mop drummer.”
The floating consciousness of a dying George Washington Crosby frames the narrative of his father Howard’s life, as an epileptic and tinker, who left his wife and son, under fear of being committed. It also touches on the life of Howard’s father’s, a preacher who, as his faculties began to go, openly speculated to his congregation about how maybe the devil wasn’t such a bad guy after all. So, three generations of New England fathers and sons are caught in this strange loop of estrangement. It is meticulously detailed, painted in lush brush strokes and finally played out with a warm, ferocious detachment in a final reunion scene between George and Howard, flashbacked and forwarded by father and son, respectively. It is a quiet scene of understated emotion and wormhole beauty. This scene of Howard’s brief reconciliation with his son, if only for a few fleeting moments, if only to leave as quickly as he came in, represents the most delicate of truths, applicable to all of our lives - that we never can truly know one another and no matter how connected we are, there is always some level of separation, and there will always be some form of disconnect. The metaphor encompasses all, and the narrative, like a clock, is ticking past ahead.
Into the river Lethe, repeatedly, Howard Aaron and George Washington Crosby dip their toes, feeling for temperature, testing it for comfort and clarity, only to forget their place, their person. But they don’t forget each other, or their collective story. And neither shall we, even if we do, for the artifice is almost done; you can smell it all the way upstairs - the burning bacon and eggs smell of synapses misfiring, then firing for the last time, and snapping off their connections with one another, forever, their long fingered tendrils waving good bye like jelly fish limbs in slow motion underwater tango moments.