As I sat with my father on his deathbed, in the days immediately before he died, I watched and listened to him relive his life in what for me was the most mysterious of ways. He was there, then, in that moment that had passed probably sixty years before. It wasn’t coherent in the sense that he was not telling me stories. His wanderings were more like hallucinations, but not quite. He was caught, somewhere between consciousness and the hallucinations of heavy painkillers, clearly going through something he needed to experience before he died. Sometimes there was an urgency to it, at others, he would mutter quite calmly, reminding me of the flower in the shoes, by the potatoes. He wanted to sit in the bucket, he became extremely agitated one afternoon because he needed to leave and he wanted whoever he was with to take him wherever he needed to go. And when I asked him where it was he needed to go, he looked at me incredulously, as if I should know: “home.” And as he uttered it, he relaxed, as if through speaking he had got where he was going. He talked to his father, and remembered his mother in a way that I had never experienced her. Indeed, this was the first and only time I heard my father ever speak of his father. I couldn’t grasp his reveries, he and his narrative were somewhere else, already, in a time and a space I have not yet experienced, or perhaps, never will. Whether he was rewriting or even reliving the narrative of his life, I knew it was his eulogy to himself and his own life. I knew there was something magical and mysterious about this process, but because he already occupied a time and a space somewhere between life and death, all I could do was witness it.
And then I read Paul Harding’s Tinkers, only to find myself in conversation with a book that knew what I had witnessed 12 years ago. I expected little from a book that I picked up in St Pancras, wary because it was written by an alumni of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I have nothing against Iowa graduates, but I do find their work generic, with a voice I have heard before. And I am skeptical of these high-profile prizes that adorn writers who, on another day, with another selection committee, might have written a book left to gather dust at the back of the shelf.
In Tinkers we see and hear the narrative of George Washington Crosby’s life. The book is loosely framed by the dying protagonist’s hallucinations, and more substantially, it reveals the dearth and struggle of his rural American north eastern childhood. Harding’s novel is fragmented and episodic, completely eclipsed by the uncontrollable and violent epileptic fits of George’s father Howard. These fits and their unpredictability, their impenetrability, shape the loneliness of George’s life. At the same time, they somehow reign the slow-moving, fractured, hallucinatory narrative of an old man in his final hours. This creativity of form is, indeed, a break away from the Iowa mould, and therefore, I would want to celebrate its innovation. Nevertheless, for this reader, it is in its articulation of an experience for which I have never found words that Tinkers takes on the dimensions of a magical, mystical and unforgettable contemporary novel.