Twenty publishers rejected Paul Harding’s novel before one made an offer. The one that bit? A tiny operation running from what Harding has described as “a janitor’s closet” (actually a small, sixth-floor office) in a New York hospital.
Editor Erika Goldman offered Harding only a $1,000 advance but she also warmly praised his manuscript and promised to turn Tinkers into a book. Her reward: “Tinkers” has become the surprise winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
The back story to the novel is so appealing that it almost overshadows the accomplishment of the novel itself. Almost.
“Tinkers” is a finely crafted piece of work by a writer who clearly respects his own trade. In fact, what it most resembles is one of the antique clocks that the book’s protagonist so lovingly repairs. This is a book so meticulously assembled that vocabulary choices like “craquelure” and “scrieved” – far from seeming pretentious – serve as reminders of how precise and powerful a tool good English can be.
“Tinkers” tells the story of the last eight days of the life of George Washington Crosby. George is a New Englander who has worked as a teacher of mechanical drawing and a guidance counselor. Later in life, however, he turned his attention to the repair of antique clocks.
The ticking of those clocks filled the house where George now lies dying, surrounded by wife, children, and grandchildren. But streaming through George’s thoughts in these final hours is another family – the family he grew up with and most particularly his father, Howard.
Howard Crosby is the heart of the novel. He was a tinker, and a man of dreamy, poetic character. Howard piloted a mule-drawn cart through northern Maine, peddling his wares to lonely rural homes. He was also an epileptic whose severe attacks caused his frightened wife – George’s mother – to consider desperate action.
Before Howard, there was his father, a Methodist minister who slowly lost his mind. The path is not easy for any of the generations of this New England family. As Howard notes, “although we are not at ease in this world, it is all we have.”
But what gives this slender book its sweetness is a ribbon of beauty (Howard reminds himself to look to “the height where the blackbirds flap” and drink in the glories of the natural world) and the occasional surprise jolt of “major kindness.” “Tinkers” is slow to boil. Its feel is anything but commercial. Perhaps that’s why it was so slow to find a publisher – and so quick to earn a prize.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.