What is it about the cold weather that makes us want to read about the winter? In the summertime, we don’t want to hear about characters sweating out the dog days. But something about the way the frost forces us indoors tends to make us want to experience a fictional winter, too. We want someone else to suffer with us.
Harding’s debut novel isn’t completely a winter book—despite the gorgeous, snow-blind cover photo by Edwin Tse—but a deathly chill hangs over it. The elderly George Washington Crosby lies dying of renal failure, while his flown-in family busily attends to him and stumbles through the motions of keeping him comfortable (a particularly piquant scene finds George’s sister, Betsy, struggling to insert a wet sponge in his mouth to sate his thirst). Mostly, however, George’s mind directs inward, remembering his strange father, Howard—a country door-to-door salesman who even sold to woodsmen without doors. George plied his trade repairing clocks, and the timepieces that fill his house become a comforting worry for his wandering mind.
Minds are of utmost concern to Harding, particularly where it concerns Howard, who suffered from epilepsy. As George remembers him, Howard’s seizures gave him a mystical air, making him a religious figure in his small town. But Harding wants to know what happens—literally and metaphorically—to Howard as his seizures seize control of his brain. His language, always gorgeous, gets downright painterly when he peeks inside Howard’s skull: “Howard’s blistered brain crackled and sparked blue behind his eyes and he sat slumped, slack-jawed, blanket-wrapped, baffled by his diet of lightning.”
George’s fascination with the gears and tumblers in clocks echoes dramatically in the inner-workings of Howard’s fitful brain, and again in Howard’s meticulous care of the wagon in which he hauled his wares. Both father and son treat objects like talismans, the ticking and clopping mechanisms that somehow bring comfort to the troubled mind.
Harding is a first-rate writer, and his fascination with what makes his characters tick recommends him as a philosopher, as well. At its mahogany outer shell, Tinkers is a novel about the way families lay down unimpeachable tracks on future generations. But in its inner chamber, it’s about the way the mind fetishizes the smallest acts—the gears that keep life trued—even as our bodies enter a final winter.
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