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A New England life, outlined in poignancy, precision

PAUL HARDING PAUL HARDING (GARY OTTLEY)
By Chris Bohjalian
February 8, 2009
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The odds are that most of us will die slowly. No sudden heart attack, no plane augering into a cornfield a few miles shy of a runway. We will die in a bed in a hospital, hospice, or at home. Death is, of course, right up there with those verities we group with taxes and the Yankees spending indecent amounts of money on free agents in the off-season. But what will those last days be like, assuming our pain has been managed, when we are prostrate on that mattress, no longer able to communicate in a meaningful fashion with whoever is sitting - reading or knitting or texting - in the chair beside us? Where will the morphine take us? Where will our minds roam?

In the case of the hero of Paul Harding's first novel, "Tinkers," it is everywhere and nowhere. "George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died," Harding's book begins, and over the next week the old man will be as likely to recall his own father's strange and mysterious - at least to the boy George once was - epilepsy as he will fixate on the floorboards below the hospital bed that has been set up for him in his New England house. He will spend far more time ruminating on that awful night long, long ago when his father bit his hand savagely in the midst of a fit than he will on the years that he spent teaching at the local high school. He will recall the passion for antique clocks that marked his retirement and how he would meticulously repair them.

But the novel is less about the details of one man's life than about the labyrinthine journey all of our lives will take at the end. There are certainly the precisely rendered specifics of George's boyhood, as well as lengthy sections about his father, Howard, a tinker who sold odds and ends to rural New Englanders from his horse-drawn wagon. Harding's interest, however, is in the universalities: nature and time and the murky character of memory. He is focused on the formative moments when the clay is still damp, not those long periods when we are already hardened statues. Consequently, he gives us George's later life early and quickly: "[He] got a master's degree in education, counseled guidance in high school, went back north every summer to fly-fish with his poker buddies - doctors, cops, music teachers - bought a broken clock at a tag sale and a reprint of an eighteenth-century manual on how to fix it, retired, went on group tours to Asia, to Europe, to Africa, fixed clocks for thirty years, spoiled his grandkids, got Parkinson's, got diabetes, got cancer, and was laid out in a hospital bed in the middle of his living room."

The small, important recollections, however, are rendered with an exactitude that is poetic. Whether it is George's bemusement at the way his customers are always a little taken aback by what it costs to fix an antique clock or Howard's discovery of the pamphlet for a psychiatric hospital his wife has acquired and his subsequent realization that she wants to send him away, Harding's prose is lyrical and specific:

"Light changes, our eyes blink and see the world from the slightest difference of perspective and our place in it has changed infinitely: Sun catches cheap plate flaking - I am a tinker; the moon is an egg glowing in its nest of leafless trees - I am a poet; a brochure for an asylum is on the dresser - I am an epileptic, insane; the house is behind me - I am a fugitive. His despair had not come from the fact that he was a fool; he knew 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 make him into something better."

Or this gem: "It was dark and windy outside, with flurries of snow swirling down from the sky as if they were chips dropping from chiseled clouds."

Occasionally Harding grandstands more than may be appropriate for a novel that is, by design, this modest. There are some sentences that stretch nearly the length of a page and a few Walt Whitman-like flourishes that border on the grandiloquent: "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 has also granted George a demise that may be too free of pain and terror and doubt.

But these are quibbles. "Tinkers" is a poignant exploration of where we may journey when the clock has barely a tick or two left and we really can't go anywhere at all.

Chris Bohjalian is the author of 11 novels, including "Skeletons at the Feast," slated to be published in paperback Tuesday.

TINKERS

By Paul Harding

Bellevue Literary, 191 pp., $14.95

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