I finish Stiltsville and know I must now read the book chosen this month for my book group. It’s an assignment I can’t miss. I’ve been meeting with this group of women, though not exactly the same mix, for more than twenty years. I started this group with friends I knew who were readers when I had two babies at home and craved adult (and especially literary) conversation. There are only a couple of the original “founding mothers” left but these women are all smart and well-read – a formidable group of individuals whom I love. This month’s book is Tinkers by Paul Harding. All I know about it is that it’s a slim novel (only 191 pages) and that, “it’s deep,” according to my friend Judy. Oh yeah, did I mention it won the Pulitzer?
At the opening of this novel, we learn that the main character, George Washington Crosby, “began to hallucinate eight days before he died.” And then we meet George lying on the hospital bed that’s been moved into the living room of his house. There are relatives around who take shifts keeping him company. A few pages in, we also learn, “George Crosby remembered many things as he died, but in an order he could not control.” And while the author can control the order of the book, the plot, say, he chooses not to. Reading this book is like having your own vivid hallucination. The author just seems to run with George’s memories in a stream of consciousness series of recollections. Most of those memories are of his father, a tinker, who traveled the harsh New England countryside with his wagon filled with household supplies to sell to folks living far from any town center who depend on Howard for boxes of lye, mop heads, soap, pots, needles, thread, twine, tobacco, brochures for washing machines and ice boxes. During the course of his rounds, we are told, Howard also did these extraordinary things: “. . . shoot a rabid dog, deliver a baby, put out a fire, pull a rotten tooth, cut a man’s hair, sell five gallons of homemade whiskey for a backwoods bootlegger named Potts, fish a drowned child from a creek.” And Howard is epileptic. His seizures are, at the time, not understood by his wife or the local doctor who suggests putting Howard into the State hospital which had originally been called “the Eastern Main Insane Hospital.” And while she’s thinking about it, Howard takes off into the cold New England woods alone.
The novel is filled with exquisite descriptions of nature and detailed instructions on how to repair clockworks taken, it seems, from an eighteenth century manual, and how to make a bird’s nest. For me, this novel was a quick read with real flashes of poignancy. But I wished it were longer and I wished for a more conventional structure. I wanted to the author to explore the characters more deeply. I guess it’s just me, my simple tastes. I like a straightforward story. Read it for yourself and see.