I cannot imagine anything more unsettling than contemplating that day when I will no longer be a physical part of this world. Worse than that, though, has to be George Washington Crosby’s plight in Paul Harding’s novel, Tinkers. It opens with him in his living room on a rented hospital bed, eight days away from death. And yet both George, and his poet father Howard, has given me reason and strength to open and re-read the pages of my own mortality.
George is desperate to “look at his life, to take the stock he always imagined a man would at his end”. He has always been a responsible, analytical and organized man. Sadly, not only is he helpless to control the order of his memories but all of them have shifted in so many different ways that what he sees is a “different self every time he tried to make an assessment.” And since control and precision were huge priorities for George the novel opens with him hallucinating about a “torrent of (window) panes (that) would drive everyone from the room…(leaving him) marooned on his bed in a moat of shattered glass.”
Safe, yes, but also alone.
I would guess that those last hours of life are unsettling for as many reasons as there are persons experiencing them. I think of the differences between a priest, a burglar, a mother and a child. Their thoughts on their deathbeds, if they recognize them as such, have to be vastly different. But certainly our need to comprehend what happens next is a universal concern. Does death mean we have forever lost our connections to the only life we’ve ever known? The people we love? Do we merely become “a ghost, almost made of nothing”? Or, is there a way …a promise, a hope…that we will still remain connected but perhaps not in a way we recognize?
For Kathleen, George’s mother, the “nearly martial ordering of her household is, in fact, the love she is so terrified that she does not have.” Likewise for George, a builder of solid homes and a repairer of fine clocks, abandoning his family in death--exposing them to the whims of nature and “intrepid squirrels” just as his father and grandfather had abandoned their families--is tantamount to forsaking their love. It is a loss that both George and his quixotic father, Howard, dread. And it is their coping with that dread, trying to make sense of its pain that not only permeates this beautiful story but also draws me to want to read it over and over.
My own father, an alcoholic, left my mother, my siblings and me when I was the same age as George. He did not leave us physically but like Howard, “The world fell away from my father the way he fell away from us. We became his dream.” It is heart wrenching to read how George and Howard deal with their loss but, at the same time, it is comforting. It connects me to them.
Throughout his work, Harding juxtaposes dreams and reality and light and shadows in ways that create tension to the point of frustration. I found the tension not only within the story but also within myself as I read. Harding very effectively nurtures this with his narrative mode. I might say it is simply stream of consciousness except that that implies a narration of primarily the characters’ interior monologues. Harding goes several steps further by throwing in a dizzying combination of dream sequences, epileptic seizures and lyrical soliloquies like a Summer evening of fireworks that are both stunning and enlightening but, at the same time, awesome in their frightful power. This tension pitted my chances of understanding Harding at the same desperate level as the characters’ attempts to make sense of their lives. I felt their pain because Harding nearly drowns us with it-- like the silt and water of Tagg Pond that encompasses Howard as he sits in it for a day and a night while searching for his father and for himself. By the end of the novel I, like George and Howard, craved a resolution that gives us all a sense of being re-connected with those we lost and those we love.
There are other juxtapositions throughout the story. There is Howard who basks in the unpredictable but beautiful wonders of nature and its demand that we endure its hardships. “…winter already sealing the country people in behind him.” In contrast there is George, who venerates the precise and predictable mechanical world of clocks despite their demands that we maintain them and live within the boundaries of their minutes. “Eighty four hours before he died.”
Howard received his poetic leanings from his minister father whereas George’s tendencies reflect his mother’s “stern manner and humorless regime.” I loved them both because Harding makes them real--vulnerable yet capable of tremendous love. As I read, more than anything, I cheered for them. I waited for them to connect once more with each other, probably because I never really connected with my own father.
In the end both George who is “lamenting the loss of this world of light and hope” (23) and Howard whose “despair came from the fact that his wife saw him as a fool, as a useless tinker” (125) do find each other and this gives comfort to their final hours. Howard sees his shadow separate from himself and “his shadow dreamed just as he did for the reason that he could imagine himself to be a shadow of something--someone--else.” I believe that someone is George, the son for whom Howard longed.
As George’s last breaths escape, his face becomes almost like a clock, a sundial, and the shadows of time passing across it… (his body) “merely maintaining a pantomime of human life.” The real George, the ‘it’ which I took to also be his ‘shadow’, his soul, is plumbing “depths far, far from that living room” and far from his family’s “own, human terrors about their own wases to the it, which is so nearly was that it will not or simply cannot any longer accept their human grief.” He connects with his family and his ancestors on a level wholly different than a tinker might.
What happens is that George senses “finally, the foolishness of attributing the unknown to secret cabals” He accepts that “Everything was almost always obscure”…that understanding shines “for no discernable reason.” For him it was okay, upon death, to lie down and get picked over and be “used to fix broken clocks,” to become a part of the solution. “This is how, finally, we were joined.”
Because, in the end, Tinkers is not just about finding fathers or about trying to understand either their precise, organized natures or their poetic ones. It is not about trying to accommodate the natural world to the mechanical one. It is not about trying to justify the forces that bring progress or those that hinder it. In the end, what Harding’s Tinkers is about individuals finding their connections with all those other worlds and, finally, with the ones they love.
I am not alone, I am certain, in wanting my family, my peers and, yes, even my ancestors, to appreciate me. It is important--it is the nature of being human. Like Howard and George, I’d like to die knowing that the reflection of my life, my shadow, lives on after me and attaches itself to my loved ones so that as this process of shadows coming and going, extends itself through generations and “this alternating, interdependent series of lives (forms) a sort of intaglio” that lives on well after me.
It is uncanny how much Howard is like my father. He liked to tinker in his workshop, he was a salesman, he was a father and he was a poet. I often thought he would have been happier without the burden of his family. Unlike Howard and like George, my father stuck it out--but only in a physical sense. His sense of responsibility won out but it also frustrated him. There has always been a part of me that would like him to come back to this world, to re-connect with me on a spiritual level. To assure me that, with his drinking, he left my family not because of it, but because of him. Having read Tinkers, I am comforted to know his shadow already has.