The story opens as the unwitting memoir of George Washington Crosby, who, Harding informs us in the very first line, ‘began to hallucinate eight days before he died’. George has been dying for some time, and is surrounded in the family home by his wife, children and grandchildren. A solid citizen, George has lived a quietly successful life, indulging in his spare time a love for tinkering with old clocks that has come to define who and what he is:
“When his grandchildren had been little, they had asked if they could hide inside the [grandfather] clock. Now he wanted to gather them and open himself up and hide them among his ribs and faintly ticking heart.”As George grows progressively more feeble, and his mind wanders farther afield, Harding introduces another character: Howard, George’s father, a travelling salesman from the turn of the century who peddled his wares in the back woods from a mule-drawn cart. Where George, as an horologist, is fascinated with the art and science of measuring time, Howard is prone to epileptic fits that not only disrupt and distort his perception of day-to-day life, but eventually erupt into an event that shapes the lives of future generations.
Aptly enough, Harding’s parallel narratives proceed by fits and starts, with time a fluid and often contrary element as the story advances. George’s mind flutters back and forth through time, alighting on moments in his family’s extended history and observing with a poet’s facility for detail whatever here-and-now he happens to find himself in.
At one point, Howard covertly watches the young George build a boat to set sail on a pond in the woods:
“What of miniature boats constructed of birch bark and fallen leaves, launched onto cold water clear as air? How many fleets were pushed out toward the middles of ponds or sent down autumn brooks, holding treasures of acorns, or black feathers, or a puzzled mantis? Let those grassy crafts be listed alongside the iron hulls that cleave the sea, for they are all improvisations built from the daydreams of men, and all will perish, whether from ocean siege or October breeze.”Harding is a consummate wordsmith, and the novel is studded with such prose-poems. Delicious to read, and reread, they do raise the question of how George and Howard, neither one particularly well educated men, become so fluently and instinctively poetic in their interior monologues.
That said, the novel opens with George beginning to hallucinate, so perhaps it’s best to simply accept the novel in its entirety as a feverish dream. Besides, and despite the rigorously unsentimental tone and its occasional flourishes of sobering realism, the novel is equally invested with surreal moments, and even hyper-realism. Harding, for example, interrupts the narrative with frequent excerpts from the Rev. Kenner Davenport’s treatise The Reasonable Horologist (1783), a fictional and often hilarious account of the history of time-pieces. None of this, we are being warned, is to be taken too seriously.
That warning, it appears, extends to life itself. Are we to depend for the truth of three generations of family on the wanderings of George’s enfeebled mind? Are we to depend, when it comes to measuring out our lives, on clocks and watches, when all attempts to come to terms with time, space and the universe at large must in the final analysis be considered ‘improvisations built from the daydreams of men’?
In invoking the Rev. Kenner Davenport, and the spirit of the Age of Enlightenment in which his fictional treatise was published, Harding also invokes the belief that the universe is a vast piece of machinery. One day, runs the theory, we will understand everything, if only we apply logic and reason to its cogs and gears. In the context of this novel, however, we are being persuaded to believe this courtesy of George’s dying ramblings and the poetic fancies of Howard’s epileptic mind.
The notion that we can distil reason and meaning from the universe if we simply apply the correct tools - memory, thought, words in their best order - is revealed in Harding’s hands as the fallacy it has always been. What does the universe know, or care, of the tiny implements horologists use to pin time in its place?
Short enough at 191 pages to be read in one sitting, TINKERS is a superb novel that deserves and demands a more measured reading experience. Part prose-poem, part philosophical investigation, it is a wholly satisfying excavation of limited lives lived to their fullest capacity. - Declan Burke
This review first appeared in the Sunday Business Post