Friday, June 4, 2010

Is This Guy the Next Marilynne Robinson?

Answer: I'm not convinced quite yet.

When Paul Harding won this year's Pulitzer Prize for his debut novel, Tinkers, it caused something of a stir in the literary world. The book had been published by a tiny medical press; it lacked reviews from nearly all the major literary outlets. I myself had never heard of the book before it won the award. But then when it managed to snag itself a place on the bestsellers' list and in the history books. My interest was only a tad bit piqued, but then I saw the cover. There was Marilynne Robinson, quoted as calling the book "truly remarkable." Well, if Robinson tells me to read something, read it I must!

For the first 1/3rd of the book, I found myself pretty disappointed. Harding's book, so praised for its pretty prose and blended time/space narrative, seemed pretty damn boring to me. But then the book suddenly kicked into gear after about 80 pages, and I became hooked. You see, I'm a sucker for father-son stories, and this one's a doozy. The book's primary character, George, is dying as an old man. As he hallucinates on his deathbed, we see flashes of his childhood and his father, the dreamy and epileptic Howard. George may have been the protagonist (well, kind of - Howard gets almost as much space here), but his father was the real heart of the novel for me. You can't help but feel bad for Howard, but a decision he makes when George and his siblings are still young rocks everyone's world to the core.

This book reminded me a lot of Robinson's own Gilead. Like that book (also a Pulitzer Prize winner), it's about fathers and sons, life and love and grief. It's prose is beautiful and rooted in nature. [Side note: Apparently, Harding was Robinson's student in the Univ. of Iowa's MFA program, the lucky bastard.] But for some reason, I found it a little wanting. Maybe I still can't get over how bored I was by the first few-dozen pages, but I think Harding might have to write a couple more novels before he gets to Robinson heights of excellence. Also, while the blending of narrative over time and place was used to strong effect, it seemed a little messy at times. And all those clock metaphors? A tad too on-the-nose for me.

But I don't mean to poop all over this good book. What Harding does in the last two sections of the book are really quite wonderful. At one point, we get to see Howard remember his own father, a minister who lost his mind too early. This may have been my favorite part of the whole book. Harding's writing is particularly strong in this section, and seeing these three men - fathers and sons all - grow close and recede in each other's lives is nothing short of awesome. Finally, Harding earns my respect by creating two final paragraphs that couldn't have ended the novel better.

I don't know if this book is as great as some critics say it is, but I do think Harding is extremely talented and should do some incredible things in the future. And if a poetic little book like this gets this kind of media attention (and it's been getting a lot), then I can't complain.

Book Reviewed: Tinkers, by Paul Harding

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