Why Diane's guest Ben Wittes says no.
George Washington Crosby, the central character in Paul Harding’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Tinkers,” is dying. As his family comes in and out of the living room where a hospital bed is set up, Crosby drifts in and out of disjointed memories. He recalls his hardscrabble childhood in rural Maine and his traveling salesman father who suffered from epilepsy. One reviewer calls the language in this book “dazzling.” Another says it’s a novel that manages to put us in touch with the brilliant, elusive world of the senses. For this month’s Readers’ Review, we discuss “Tinkers” by Paul Harding.
- Lisa Page Former president of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. She teaches writing at George Washington University.
- Neely Tucker Staff writer for The Washington Post magazine; author, "Love in the Driest Season," a memoir of adopting a baby in Zimbabwe.
- Mark Athitakis Writer, editor, critic and blogger.
Read An Excerpt
Excerpt from “Tinkers” by Paul Harding. Copyright 2009 by Paul Harding. Reprinted here by permission of Bellevue Literary Press. All rights reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Paul Harding's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Tinkers" is a slim volume, but it offers a complex reflection on memory, consciousness and the meaning of life. Disjointed scenes float through the mind of the story's main character and the older New England man during his last days. Joining me to talk about this month's Readers' Review, Lisa Page of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, Neely Tucker, our writer for The Washington Post magazine and Mark Athitakis, he's writer, editor, critic and blogger. I hope you will join us 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Feel free to join us on Facebook, or send us a tweet. And good morning to all of you.
MS. LISA PAGEGood morning.
MR. NEELY TUCKERGood morning.
MR. MARK ATHITAKISGood morning.
REHMGood to see you all. You know the amazing part of this book, number one, it's a first novel and it won the Pulitzer Prize. Number two, it almost didn't get published. Give us the back-story, Mark.
ATHITAKISWell, it's a wonderful back-story. It's kind of heartening for, I think, a lot of young novelists. This is a novel that basically sat in Paul Harding's store for awhile, it was rejected by a lot of publishers, a lot of agents.
REHMWho wanted car chases and gun shots and all the rest?
ATHITAKISExactly. And it got picked up by this small press called Bellevue Literary Press which is run out of the New York University medical school. And it had a very small print run, he got, I believe a $1000 advance for the novel and this network of booksellers and critics really got behind it. It had gotten to the hands of one of the Pulitzer judges and from there it just took off.
REHMWhy do you think it did?
ATHITAKISI think that it's away from the car chases and it's away from that sort of noise that I think defines a lot of things that we're hearing in our lives. This is a novel that forces you to, whatever pace you're used to reading it at, it's going to force you to go at half speed and I think there's some real appeal to that.
REHMNeely, give us a little of the plot, if you will.
TUCKERWell, it basically concerns the dying memories of George, right, and memories of his father. The plot is sort of all over the place, but what he essentially talks about at the beginning is, he's dying and there's a plot device and it's this many hours before he dies and this many hours before he dies. And what his memories are concerned with are basically those of his father. It's not entirely of his family, it's specifically of his father and the ties that are and are not there between them.
TUCKERAnd you get long passages that go back to his father's life. You have a good bit of the novel is told from his father's perspective and then it's back from his perspective in memory. And there's some hallucinogenic passages and you're not entirely sure if he's remembering things accurately or not because he's very near death.
REHMThat's a good point. Lisa, how'd you feel about this novel?
PAGEWell, I struggled with parts of it and what I struggled with, frankly, was what Neely just said in terms of the opening of the book. The hallucinatory beginning where I didn't quite know where I was, I didn't know which character was speaking. I understood George was dying. I didn't understand how it was his father until, you know, deeper into the book. The whole notion of the epilepsy that Howard has, initially, I didn't understand what was happening. And I think that the strength of this book is its prose, but the characters -- and in terms of its being a character-driven story, that's another issue.
REHMBecause it's difficult from time to time to know which character is actually speaking. George is the son who's dying. He's thinking about his father who was the traveling salesman who, we learn sort of a third of the way through the novel, left home, walked out the door, never to be seen again. How come?
ATHITAKISShame I think is one of the main motivating reasons. He is an epileptic and for many years his epilepsy was hidden from his family. And there's a moment where he has an attack and he winds up biting George and...
REHMBad, bad bite on the hand.
ATHITAKISExactly, and something that becomes memorable throughout George's entire life. And there is kind of described in a very impressionistic sort of way, but embarrassment and shame that comes along with that that prompts him to feel like he needs to move along.
PAGEBut he also knows that his wife is looking into committing him to a mental institution.
TUCKERYeah, there's a good part here. The book is sort of impressionistic and I actually went back through with a pen and tried to figure out exactly the timeline. There are some clues. Most of the book is told in about 1995, it never dawned on me 'til I went back and find that he was born in 1950, George was, and he died at about 80. His father died, we learn, in one sentence, in 1972 and the last time they saw each other was at Christmas dinner 1953. But most of the book takes place in the 1920s.
TUCKERAnd when his dad decides to leave home, he's had this epileptic fit, he's understood that his wife leaves out -- in just very sort of devious fashion, she leaves out a brochure for a home for the mentally ill on his...
REHMDo you think she left that out by mistake?
TUCKERI went back through and read that and there's a passage where she gets it out of the drawer and leaves it on the counter.
REHMAnd leaves it there.
TUCKERAnd it's a very sort of mean way of doing something.
REHMYeah, of saying to him, this is your future.
TUCKERExactly. And he comes in and he reads that and there's a very short passage that sort of -- that goes to why he leaves home and what he -- the dissolution of his marriage, in effect. And he sees this brochure and he writes that his despair had not come from the fact that he was a fool. He knew that he was a fool. His despair came from the fact that his wife saw him as a fool, as a useless tinker, a copier of bad verse from two penny religious magazines, an epileptic and could find no reason to turn her head and see him as something better.
REHMNeely Tucker, he is a staff writer for The Washington Post and author of "Love in the Driest Season," a memoir of adopting a baby in Zimbabwe. Do join us as we talk about the novel, "Tinkers," winner of the Pulitzer Prize for author Paul Harding. When we think about this woman who was Howard's wife, the other women in this novel don't really come forward.
PAGEWell, I actually got very involved with Kathleen.
REHMOh, you did?
PAGEI did. I had -- I didn't just see her as this negative. I saw her as very sympathetic in the sense that she didn't understand what epilepsy was. She did believe it was madness. She sort of tried to counter the situation with her rigidity, by forcing the kids to sit at the table until he came home for every meal, even as late as 11:00 at night. They had to sit there in front of their cold food until he came home. I thought that she really suffered and was very unhappy and -- but, Diane, I hear in your question also that, at the same time, women in this novel get short shrift and Kathleen gets short shrift.
REHMDo you agree?
ATHITAKISAnd they are painted as in extreme places. I mean, Kathleen, for example, there's this brief passage that talks about how feelings frighten her so much that she has "buried them under layer upon layer of domestic strictness." And that it's a beautiful line, but it's not very well explored in her behavior.
ATHITAKISAnd also when Howard leaves, he goes to the polar opposite, a woman, I forget her name, but she can't stop talking.
ATHITAKISYes. And so both of these women kind of appear as sort of like very extreme almost comical figures. They're not developed the way that the men in the story are.
REHMYou're witnessing the central figure. I can see him lying in the bed, the hospital bed in the living room, looking around. The memories begin to come. Why so much about his father and why not about the rest of the family?
TUCKERWell, in that way, it's sort of very insular because I think the women tend to not come off well in the book because there's so much time devoted to George and Howard, his father, and to a little bit Howard's father, this Methodist minister who sort of gradually goes insane. And the women are all sort of very close mouthed by comparison. I don't think that Harding is mean to the women in the book, as just sort of by comparison there's so much more presented about these three men, most particularly George and Howard, that the women are sort of are off-camera. And when they do come on-camera, they're not very flatteringly or sympathetically presented.
REHMNeely, as a staff writer for The Washington Post, do you have a sense of understanding as to why this novel was initially rejected?
TUCKERIt's a difficult novel. It doesn't jump off the shelf at you. We were talking out here it's a short novel, but it's a slow read. It's not...
REHMWhy is it a slow read?
TUCKERBecause it's so dense and so concerned with the physical world. There are very dense, poetic descriptions of the outside world. There's very little time devoted to buildings, to houses. It's all -- Howard has all this almost transcendental relationship with the natural world. He's a tinkerer. He drives a horse-drawn wagon in the 1920s and sometimes he loses entire days, just walking around in flower fields in this sort of daze of wonder at the world.
TUCKERSo it's not a book that, you know, that somebody's going to put in your hands and go, holy smokes, read the first two pages and man, you're in. The book was -- I sort of looked it up and gone backward, as Mark was talking about, when it came out. It was very lightly reviewed, almost not reviewed at all. It came out very late in the year, in December, I believe. There was a very short mention in Booklist, Publishers Weekly, The Library Journal, the other pre-pub magazines didn't touch it. The New York Times didn't review it. The Washington Post didn't review it. Chicago Tribune didn't, Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weekly, People, everybody lined up to ignore this book. He got some very small reviews, all very good reviews, but in some smaller regional papers around the country.
REHMNeely Tucker is staff writer for The Washington Post. We're talking about the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "Tinkers" by Paul Harding. I do hope you'll join us.
REHMAnd here's an email from Margaret Brown who's publisher of The Shelf Media Group. She says, "I love your featuring this excellent book from a small press." She goes on to say, "I interviewed Paul Harding in the October, 2010 issue of Shelf Unbound Literary Magazine. I thought you and your listeners might be interested in the rhythms in 'Tinkers'.
REHM"Are you conscious of the pattern or meter of your language as you write?" she asked him. Paul Harding says, "Absolutely. I am wholly committed to writing lyric pros, which is the term I use for writing. It falls just the other side of pros poetry. I think of my writing in terms of things like tempo and time signature and rhythm, the musicality of language, its incantatory properties. These things are also of course other ways of thinking about the ebb and flow, catch and release of time held by or inside narrative." Lovely.
PAGEYou know that Paul Harding was a drummer, too.
REHMWell, that's how he starts. Shelf Unbound says to him, "You were a drummer in the rough band 'Cold Water Flat'." And turning from drumming to literature?
ATHITAKISIt is a book -- I think one part of the slowness of it is getting used to -- you're reading it as much for the music that it makes as much as the plot. And if you'll indulge me, there's a brief bit that I think really exemplifies this.
ATHITAKISAnd it's a passage that's talking about one of Howard's seizures. "When one of the charges found its way through the door and into Howard, it stuck fast. It latched onto something inside of him and held and held. In the cold blasted numb hours following a seizure, confusion prevailed. Howard's blistered brain crackled and sparked blue behind his eyes and he sat slumped, slack jawed, blanket wrapped, baffled by his diet of lightening," which is beautiful language.
PAGEAnd that's alliteration in assonance qualities of poetry using sound and the sounds of consonants and verbs.
REHMAnd of course there is the scene, and perhaps someone can find it, where George's mother tells him to put a spoon into Howard's mouth. And the -- a stick and the stick breaks. And in fact, Howard then bites George's hand. It's quite a scene.
TUCKERWell, it is and that's the scene where we talk about that some of the women in the book don't come off well. In that scene, Kathleen comes off extremely -- she's patient. She's kind. She's not at all excited that, you know, this is a pretty terrible scene happening on the floor. The children had never seen their father have a seizure before. You know, they're stricken by it. And she's very patient. She's very kind and she never really loses her cool. And that sort of, you know, is in contrast. You get the -- Mark had talked about how she had kept everything suppressed.
TUCKERAnd that, you know, it's within a few pages that after this episode she does that rather cold-hearted thing we were discussing of leaving out the brochure for her husband to see. So she is really a lot under -- you know, that's bubbling under the surface.
REHMLisa, had you read this book before?
PAGEI had not.
REHMHad you heard of it?
PAGEI had heard of it, yes. And I have to say too when you chose this, Diane, it made me think a lot about the Pulitzer because this year, you know, there was no winner for fiction.
PAGEAnd that this -- you know, two years ago, you know, it was definitive.
REHMAnd that's why we chose it because there was no winner for fiction this year.
TUCKERAnd it's actually sort of reminiscent, you know, in some fairly direct ways to one of the -- from "Train Dreams," which was one of the novels shortlisted. It's another, you know, short, hallucinogenic, novella-length book. The difference that the Pulitzer makes -- we were talking about the -- that this book -- people were lining up not to review this book, right. It got a couple of nice reviews. A couple influential people saw it. It won the Pulitzer Prize.
TUCKERI looked up on Nielson book scan. Today, this book has sold on Nielson 365,936 copies in paper, very little in hard cover, about 4500. That was its initial run. Nielson gets about 70 percent of sales so you add another 30 percent. What is it? It's about 430,000 copies.
TUCKERThat's what the Pulitzer Prize will do for you. It will take you from zero to -- you know, that translates in -- let's say all those were in paperback, at the standard deal about $1 a book, it's $450,000.
REHMYou bet. Mark, George buys a broken clock at a garage sale. And the theme of clocks begins to work all the way through this novel.
ATHITAKISYes. There is a sense of that the clock is literally ticking. You go throughout the book where you find out he has 80 hours before he died, 48 hours before he died. I mean, that's -- some of the tension comes out of that sort of strained sort of other worldly kind of sense of boy, you know, the hand of god is really kind of coming down on George's life. It's -- and it's done in a very unusual fashion.
ATHITAKISThere are excerpts from this book that Paul Harding made up called the reasonable horologist, which I suppose is supposed to be a how-to-guide for fixing clocks. If it existed it would be the most useless how-to-guide ever 'cause it starts with laundry lists of, you know, bits of clocks and then goes into this sort of high flown King James Bible-ish sort of talk about, you know, spirit and faith and blasphemy. It's rendered very unusually.
REHMAnd again, one other part of the back story, Marilyn Robinson is not only a good friend of Paul Harding's -- has become a good friend, but she was one of the people blurbing the book initially, which I gather made a huge difference, Lisa.
PAGEAnd she was his mentor. I mean, she saw in him way before everybody else did how talented he was.
REHMNow I am wondering since there are no phones ringing whether nobody else in this world had read the book "Tinkers" or whether they're simply so interested in what all of you have to say that they're waiting to call. I'm going to offer them the telephone number again, 800-433-8850. And you can send your email to email@example.com. You can join us on Facebook or -- I was going to say secrets. Isn't that interesting? Almost came to mind because there are secrets in this book.
TUCKERAnd it's not an easily accessible book. I mean, I wound up reading it mostly at night before going to bed because you can have -- you really can -- you're missing the point of this book if you have the TV on with the sound on in the background.
TUCKEROr you're sitting there kinda chatting with somebody and then looking down at...
REHMJust how I read it, Neely, same way. Very, very quiet because you have to focus and you have to concentrate.
ATHITAKISYeah, it's other worldly. I think -- you know, we talked about how you feel when you read the first couple of pages of this. You know, the first sentence has the word hallucinate in it. You have this scene shortly after talking about a hot water tank in a house being soldered by lightening. It's -- you know, you're told -- you get a sense very early on that you're in a world of strangeness.
ATHITAKISAnd there's this moment where George is out in a field and he constructs this unusual screen out of twigs and blades of grass that is -- you know, I read this passage numerous times -- like, why is he building this thing? And it's this kind of portal to the inevitable, this sort of communing with nature. And, you know, that's not everybody's cup of tea. It's beautifully written, but it takes some work.
PAGEAnd I want to go back to what you said about secrets because that, to me, along with the descriptions of nature it's the power of the book. And he drops these secrets, you know. They just come out of nowhere like the town -- there was a fire in the town and they broke in and found a woman and her children nestled and burned in the bed. And they thought that it was the man's wife and kids. Then the wife's man and kids come back into town.
REHMShow up, yeah.
PAGEAnd they're like, who is this woman? Who are these children?
REHMYes, exactly. And they never find out.
PAGEAnd they never find out.
REHMIn a recent interview, Paul Harding said that he tried deliberately to make the epilepsy as unromantic as possible and Howard, the character who suffers from it, something of a mystic. Do you think that that comes through, Mark?
ATHITAKISIt's unusual to hear him say that he didn't want it to be romantic because, I mean, certainly it creates a lot of difficulties for himself and a lot of difficulties for his family. But Harding is in some ways kind of a victim of his own command of language. I mean, those scenes are really beautifully written and are very richly metaphorical. So it's not romantic exactly but it certainly isn't -- this isn't a story about -- you wouldn't describe it as here's a story of one man's epilepsy and how it, you know, hurt is family or destroyed his family. It's not couched in that sort of language.
PAGEAlthough his wife -- his second wife Megan believes that those -- that there's a spiritual aspect to the seizures.
REHMWe have an email from Marie who says, "It was Michelle Fillgate (sp?) then at the Portsmouth, N.H. bookstore River Run who introduced the book to a Pulitzer judge at a conference." She goes on to say, "We were all very proud of her." I think I have spurred people to call in. Go ahead, Neely.
TUCKERI think Paul Harding owes her a lunch.
REHMYeah, at least. Let's go to Ann Arbor, Mich. Good morning, Judy. You're on the air.
JUDYHi there. Thank you very much. I adore your show.
JUDYI adored this book. I read it last winter. I thought the story was compelling and I was wanting to read the book and read the story. So about 30 pages in, I just thought, I'm going to read this twice anyway so I read it quickly for the story. Then I went back and savored it for the language. And I had a comment about the focus on the father's son and the secondary place of other characters. When someone is dying, it's the unresolved riddle of the person's life that becomes the preoccupation of those last hours. And certainly for George, the riddle of Howard was the riddle of his life.
JUDYYou know, the scene of the clocks and his work with the clocks is an echo of his father as a tinker. It's the thing that drove him in his life.
REHMJudy, you have added a great deal to this morning's Readers' Review, one of the reasons I'm always so pleased to have these conversations. What a great comment, Lisa.
PAGEOh absolutely. And I'm so glad that she brought up the notion of loss. I mean, because his father's abandonment meant that his mother lived with him for the rest of his life. And his mother who was so unhappy, the same woman Kathleen, you know, I mean, she was with George when he got married and had kids and to her death. He was affected by his father's having left throughout his life.
REHMAnd the mystery of his father's having left. I'm not going to give -- maybe I will -- should we give away that last scene? You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to St. Louis, Mo. Good morning, Camilla. You're on the air.
CAMILLAHi. My book group read this last winter. It was selected by someone else and I listened to it and I found myself confused almost all the time. So I had to sort of fall into the rhythm of the language and not really worry about the story too much because I could never tell who was talking half the time or what was going on. And then -- but what was really interesting is that when we came to the book group discussion it was a book that was very divisive. Either people loved it with a passion and argued passionately for it or hated it, like the worst book they'd ever, ever read.
CAMILLAAnd it was very interesting. And it was also interesting that every one of us took something very different out of it. We all just -- different pieces of it hit different ones of us in very different ways. And we're a book group of women but this was one of the books that sparked the most conversation last year. so I just wanted to add that comment. I'm really enjoying listening to you all.
REHMI'm glad you called. You know, that's the best that book clubs can do is to spark that conversation that gets one group thinking about the same book from another perspective.
TUCKEROh, absolutely. And I think there's no right way to read this book except to feel like maybe it should have a warning sticker saying, you know, you will need more time to read it...
TUCKER...or -- you know, 'cause I read this twice. And the first time...
TUCKER...and the first time I read it was for the language, 'cause it just seemed it was so for grounded. And then the second time was really trying to kind of puzzle it together and figure it out and what was going on.
TUCKERAnd one thing I discovered the second time around was the sense that, you know, Howard and George have things going on parallel to each other that they don't know about. There's this -- both of them were pipe smokers for a little while. And there's lots of little details that, you know, they don't talk about but their lives are running on parallel tracks. And I think part of the heartbreak of this story is knowing that they get along but they don't know it.
REHMThat's an interesting point, Neely.
ATHITAKISAnd -- well, they have -- for all of the time that the book spends on describing, as we've talked about, the physical world, there is clearly an emotional tie between George and Howard that is the bind of the book. But there's very little time spent describing that of what it is. There's a couple of...
REHMYeah, except the tinker and the clocks. I mean, that's the thing that binds them.
TUCKERI think that -- I've got a tiny little passage here where the caller was talking about, you know, things that you love and hate. There are things to love in this book and there's a couple of parts that I found exasperating. And, you know, I'm not going to be mad at anybody who would say, you know, I can't -- what is he doing with this?
TUCKERI personally -- me -- I didn't think the thing with the clocks worked. I understand it's central to the idea or the metaphor of the book. I really didn't think it came off that well. That was most -- one of the times I sort of scratched my head and -- here's a passage that this was -- George is -- again he's hallucinating. He's right before -- he's very near death. This is towards the very end of the book. He's talking about his father.
TUCKERAnd this little part of the book, this paragraph is italicized. "Thought that he was a clock -- was like a clock -- was like a spring in a clock when it breaks and explodes when he had his fits. But it was not -- but he was not like a clock, or at least was only like a clock to me. But to himself, who knows? And so it not he -- and so it is not he who was like a clock but me." I have no idea what in the...
ATHITAKISNot a Gertrude Stein fan, I take it.
TUCKERCome on. Let's -- you know, that was one of the things if you didn't like this book, that would be a passage that I would say, you know, I didn't like that part.
REHMDo you think -- do you agree that it should have won the Pulitzer?
TUCKERWell, I get very reductionist on the Pulitzer Prize. The Pulitzer's widely, I think, misunderstood. It's the world's smallest and most influential book group. It's a total of 21 people, I think with the three people who pick and I think it's 18 board members. So if 21 people decide they like it, sure, it deserves to win.
REHMNeely Tucker, staff writer for the Washington Post magazine. Short break. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd if you've just joined us, which I cannot imagine, we're talking about the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, "Tinkers" by Paul Harding. Won the Pulitzer Prize, what, two years ago, Neely Tucker?
TUCKERI believe, yeah, 2010, yes, yeah.
REHMOkay. All right. Here's an email which is going to lead Lisa into a reading. This is from Libby in Oklahoma City, who says, "I read the book sometime ago. It was poignant book for me and I thought the language was lovely. Perhaps because I'm older, I understood being ill, having time to think back on your life. I was saddened by the misunderstanding of epilepsy and the fact that some are tortured in this life through no fault of their own. It was hard to understand, but I took my time and made a note to read it again." Lisa, help us understand what happened in that scene.
PAGEYes. In the scene, Howard is having an epileptic fit. His children have never seen him do this before.
REHMAnd George is one of his children.
PAGEGeorge is one of his children. He's the oldest child. And his mother steps in and this is where I'll begin. "I'm getting a stick. Kathleen ran out of the room and George heard her crash into the kitchen table sending pots and pans clattering across the floor. She groaned and came back with a fresh piece of the kindling George had split that morning. Just as she reached George and Howard, the spoon handle split in Howard's mouth and George fell forward onto his father's face."
PAGE"George tried to catch himself, but his hand slid on a pool of greasy, dark blood collecting on the floor under his father's head. He pushed himself back up with the heels of his hands and saw that his father had opened his mouth and that he was about to swallow half of the spoon handle. George stuck his fingers into Howard's mouth to get the spoon and Howard bit down onto them. George gasped. He saw his fingers clenched in his father's bloody teeth."
PAGE"Kathleen spoke in a low monotone, it's okay, Georgie, it's okay. Can you hold the stick? Hold the stick. She began to try to pry Howard's mouth open. Let me get his chin, Georgie. She grabbed her husband's mouth as if it were a sprung bear trap. What if she breaks Daddy's mouth, George thought. Get the stick in, Georgie. The end, get it in, work it in. Howard's head banged the floor and banged the floor and banged the floor again. George managed to wedge the end of the stick in between his father's teeth at the side of his mouth."
PAGE"Kathleen instantly took the stick and ferociously worked it deeper. Without looking she grabbed a seat cushion from the floor and slid it under her husband's head in between bangs on the floor. Howard's feet kicked at the legs of the table. Darla stood in the doorway and shrieked. Marjorie gasped for breath. Joe squealed, Daddy's broken. That's it, Georgie, that's almost it, little lamb. There was so much noise from my father's boots kicking the floor and kicking the legs of the table so that everything on it jumped and crashed back down or leaped off the table and clattered or shattered on the floor."
PAGE"Glass and food and forks and knives were all over the floor. And Buddy the Dog whined and barked. And Joe and Darla screamed. But my father was in the middle of it strangely quiet as if concentrating or distracted as wires and springs and ribs and guts popped and exploded and unraveled and unhinged. He was smiling when he nearly bit my fingers off. Or it felt like he did. And that was quiet too."
PAGE"My mother got hold of his chin and I forced the cedar stick into those bloody teeth and I didn't feel like I might be hurting a person anymore which made me sicker. And there was blood everywhere from my fingers which seemed detached from my hand and just to dangle from it, although I could feel blood thumping in them. And there was blood all over my father's face and in his mouth, which was my blood, and in his hair and on the floor, which was his blood from the cut he got on his head when it hit the chair as he fell."
PAGE"And for some reason, I noticed Russell the Cat bobbing his head with his ears pricked up and his eyes wide and his pupils contracted and its little triangle nose twitching as he sniffed and stared at the blood. Instead of terror, though, I thought, so this is what it is, I know what it is now. My father is not a werewolf or a bear or a monster and now I can run away."
REHMWhoa. That was really quite a passage.
TUCKERYeah, no, that is for the -- we were talking about for the people who didn't like the book and then for the people who really liked it, okay, that's really great.
PAGEBut you know what else you notice about that passage is it starts out in third person and shifts to third person.
REHMOf course, yeah.
PAGEAnd Harding doesn't that a lot. He plays with point of view and tense. We're in the past tense at one point. Then we go into the present tense.
REHMAnd that's why it gets confusing...
REHM...for some people. Let's go to Chloe in Windham, N.H. Good morning to you.
CHLOEGood morning. I just wanted to bring up the book because it was more of an experience for me because I listened to it on tape. And I was on a long drive through Vermont and through the mountains and there wasn't any traffic and so I kinda fell into the story and was sort of drifting. And it's an unusual book because the language forces you to pay attention, but it also means you drift because it's dream like. And so for me I just had this image of the mountains. And the drive I sort of had to pay attention, but then could dream just like the book. And it all sort of becomes one image to me. It was very beautiful and dreamlike, but a little creepy too.
ATHITAKISWell, I mean, I think one thing that's clear about his book at least in terms of the writing is that it comes out of a very long tradition of American writers. We talked a little bit about Marilyn Robinson who writes with a very religious perspective, but I think this even goes back to Walt Whitman and Hawthorne. "The Scarlet Letter" is actually mentioned in this book in an unusual situation. Melville Faulkner, one of the characters, has a name that sounds very close to Addie Bundren, a character in "As I Lay Dying." And there's a lot of references to authors who -- what they have in common is a lot of extended language. This is not Hemingway-esque. I mean, it's very...
ATHITAKIS...it's stretching out words and with very religious, spiritual tone as well.
REHMAnd to Germantown, Md. Good morning, John.
JOHNGood morning. And I'm glad to hear that last reference to some of the spiritual aspects. I frankly loved this book as did my wife who called it to my attention. And she actually predicted once we learned that he had been nominated to be considered for the Pulitzer, she predicted that Paul was going to win, Paul Harding. Two things, one, the title is a terrific title because Howard, the tinker, is sort of a traditional tinker and there's some wonderful stories about him interacting with the country folk. But also it hasn't really been focused that George, who's dying, the son, became after he retired a very skilled clockmaker.
JOHNAnd he was a very successful man in his life. His father was poor as well as afflicted with epilepsy. And there's a short passage I might read which Howard is out in the morning chopping wood in a very frozen time. And it talks about his dealing with God's will. This is the passage. "Your cold mornings are filled with the heartache about the fact that although we are not at ease in this world, it is all we have, and that it is ours, but that it is full of strife, so that all we can call our own is strife. But even that is better than nothing at all, isn't it?"
JOHN"And as you split frost laced wood with numb hands, rejoice that your uncertainty is God's will and his grace towards you and that that is beautiful and part of a greater certainty as your own father always said in his sermons." Parenthetically, I mentioned that Howard's father was a failed minister and he's also a third man in the book, the grandfather of George.
JOHNAnd then back to this, it says, "And as the axe bites into the wood, be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it. And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember you will be dead and buried soon enough." I just found this a wonderful, spiritual book. I've read it six times. And you need to read it, I understand that, but I'm still shocked and annoyed that The Washington Post never reviewed it. And it should be remembered that The New York Times did do a blog the day it came out...
JOHN...and they called it the one that got away.
JOHNThey did a wonderful feature on Mr. Harding, but far as I know, neither of them ever reviewed it. And as much as it has sold, I think both of them ought to get around to it.
REHMNeely Tucker, that's your job.
TUCKERI will go back to the office and I will talk to Ron Charles about that. My influence will be that of zero, but I will go back and talk to Ron.
REHMBut you know, I'm so glad John mentioned the minister grandfather because he too can be considered either a success or a failure. He's thrown out. He preaches in a way that parishioners don't like and they get rid of him.
PAGEWell, and he even goes so far as to suggest that the devil might not have been that bad.
ATHITAKISWhich might've been the only laugh in this book and may have been the only time, yeah.
REHMExactly. All right. To Durham, N.C. Good morning, Judy.
JUDYGood morning. Thank you for taking my call.
JUDYI wanna say I was encouraged to read this book when I saw it on Obama's list of favorite books for the year, I guess. And so I picked it up and read it and it was the first book I think I've ever finished the last page and turned around and started it immediately again. I was completely overwhelmed by the book. And I think my favorite passage of all was -- and the reason why I loved the book is that section on how to build a bird's nest. Do you remember that little section where he talks about making your own little beaks?
JUDYYou can put them on the ends of your thumb and your first finger and then you go off and you try to make a bird's nest. And that just blew me away that anybody could even think of that idea.
ATHITAKISYes. And also not just that you can build the bird's nest, but you have to build it slowly piece by piece. You can't actually assemble all the parts together all at once. I mean, I think one of the interesting tensions of this book is that all the three men are precision workers in some way. I mean, George, before he started on working on clocks, he was -- he taught mechanical drafting. You know, Howard sold things out of a cabinet that had very, you know, neatly arrayed drawers. And his father in turn was a minister, was very focused on his sermons.
ATHITAKISBut all three of them have their lives kind of like tossed about by their lives. And it manifests itself in this sort of strangeness about like here's a precise way to build a bird's nest, but what's going on? I mean, why are you writing out a...
ATHITAKIS…how-to guide on building a nest?
REHMYeah, the other thing is each of them is so separated from his spouse.
REHMI mean, the minister who spends all of his time in his study writing and the -- Howard who spends all of his time on his truck trying to sell, making a penny, making a living, and then George who's fixing clocks.
PAGEWhose wife is never even mentioned by name.
PAGEGeorge's, we don't ever get her name.
TUCKERAnd she sort of shuffles in the room there towards the end, but you get the idea at least there at the very end there's some sort of -- you get the vague idea that George's life has turned out a little better than everybody else's, his dad and his granddad. At least his family is around and his wife is there at the very end.
REHMNeely Tucker of The Washington Post. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And to Louisville, Ky. Hi there, Tom.
TOMHi. I'm honored to be able to speak with you.
REHMOh, I'm so glad to have you.
TOMYes. I loved the book. It was very poignant for me because I think it was not a romanticized perspective of dealing with epilepsy and the process of dying and sort of the delirium that goes with that. It was very timely for me 'cause I had cared for my brother who passed away from cancer.
REHMOh, I'm sorry.
TOMAnd the perspective of being confused and dealing with the perspective of my brother's delirium and what he perceived was very well caught in this book and not romanticizing the whole process of dying and dealing with epilepsy. And it reminded me of one of my other favorite books "The Idiot" by Dostoyevsky which is sort of the main character does have epilepsy and it is very romanticized and seen as very spiritual from the other characters in that book, but from the perspective of the person having the epilepsy was much different and his perception of the whole process of dealing with the illness. So I thought it was very realistic in dealing with those issues.
TUCKERYeah, it's interesting that Tom had mentioned that. My dad had passed away of lung and brain cancer last year, and I found myself often as Tom did thinking of that time and, you know, when -- the last week or so of my father's life, you know, when he's sort of drifting in and out of consciousness or rationality, you know, it was very -- it's like I wonder where was his mind traveling. I found myself, you know, that resonated with me reading this book.
REHMWell, it's interesting because, let's see, on page 65, he thinks about what becomes of each of us after we die. He says, "We are only the fragmented memories that other people still living carry in their heads, mingled in endless ways of other people's memories so that I will remain a set of impressions, porous and open to combination with all the other vitreous squares floating about in whoever else's frames. And to my great grandchildren, I will be no more of a smoky arrangement of a set of rumors. And their great grandchildren I will be no more than a faint tint of some obscure color.
REHMIt really just sort of helps us to understand how the fragments just drift from one generation to another. I'm gonna take a last quick call from Table Grove, Ill. Good morning, Linda.
LINDAGood morning, Diane. It's such a pleasure to talk to you.
LINDAI would just like to thank you, your guests and all your callers. I've never heard of this book before, but it's been so intriguing. I'm gonna go find it. And I'm going -- I'm an audio listener and I am looking forward to listening to this novel so much.
REHMI think you're going to have a treat as long as you are patient.
LINDAYes, thank you for the warnings for the obstacles that I'm going to face in the (unintelligible) reading this book and I intend to probably listen to it two or three times before I may get it.
REHMI think that's a good idea. Thank you so much for calling. The book we've been talking about in this hour "Tinkers" by Paul Harding, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010. Our guests this morning, Mark Athitakis, a writer, editor, critic and blogger, Lisa Page, president of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, and Neely Tucker, a staff writer for The Washington Post magazine, author of "Love in the Driest Season," a memoir of adopting a baby in Zimbabwe. Thank you all so much. And...
REHM...thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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