Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be


I don’t know enough to make this statement, but I’ll make it anyway, the first of several inflated claims to follow:

When the baby boom generation was young, we wrote and filmed tales about the young. The novel The Catcher in the Rye and the movie Rebel without a Cause come to mind. Now that that generation has aged, we seem to be thinking a great deal more about, well, aging and the Terminal Event. The movies Something’s Gotta Give and Solitary Man come to mind, as do the recent and well celebrated novels Gilead,  Olive Kitteridge, and this recent Pulitzer winner, Tinkers. Our generation may not be invincible after all.

Tinkers, like every work mentioned above, focuses upon a life in relationship with those around it. The central life here is that of one George Crosby, a teacher, guidance counselor, and through the end of his life, a successful ‘horologist’ – an expert in the workings and repair of old clocks. We are introduced to George on his death bed, as he variously hallucinates and remembers, and drifts in and out of connection with those who have gathered to be present with him as he dies, those whom he can no longer recognize.

The story is told with soul and depth and poetic art. We enter a dying man’s hallucinations and experience an epileptic seizure first hand. And we watch George Crosby’s minister grandfather go slowly insane. This is a dying man with a troubled and unhappy past. With similarities to Olive and to Gilead, this is the telling of the tale of lives lived and looked back upon. The characters all are non-heroic, such heroism as there is being nothing more than the ability to survive in this broken and unhappy world. I am left with a series of impressions, of poetic images, many of which feel real, but at the same time sober and disquieting.

To say more would require a re-read and further reflection, and even then I’m not sure I would be able to put my finger on the point of it all, if there is one. One character in Tinkers is technically a ‘tinker’ (“…a person who travels from place to place mending metal utensils as a way of making a living.”) and another ‘tinkers’ with clocks. At some level, though, I get the impression that included among this group of ‘tinkerers’ may actually be the creator, who is doing a damn poor job of getting his world to run properly.

There is an obscurity here that makes the reading slow rolling, and keeps me, for all the beautifully phrased run-on sentences, from wanting to return. I’m loathe to be critical beyond that. However, let me digress a moment.

I believe in the authority of aesthetic elders. I believe that we should bow before the breadth of knowledge and depth of insight of those who really KNOW a thing before we presume to pronounce a judgment on it. I must leave, for example, the judgment between ‘good’ jazz and ‘bad’ jazz to others, and yet at the same time accept on the authority of those who know music that jazz itself is something worth listening to and knowing.

So in this spirit I do defer to my literary elders, those who guided the author, Paul Harding, through the writing workshops and measured his work against others on the Pulitzer committee. I accept their judgment that this is a very good book.

But still, I protest when a non-linear narrative forces me, the reader, to become a detective patching together a meaningful story out of seemingly random flashbacks, hallucinations, recollections, and quotes from an 18th century book on horology. This style may be good, but I’m not a fan.

The trend toward the elimination of quotation marks and the inconsistent and often changing point of view makes the reading a more difficult and less enjoyable task. Why, I wonder, would an author want to make his reader work harder, unless, as I gathered from a Cormac McCarthy interview with Oprah Winfrey, such authors assume that if we are too stupid to figure it out we ought to just stick to Go, Dog. Go!

Okay. I’m over-reacting.

But I am puzzled by the intentionally obscure considered as art. I sometimes wonder if there is an arrogance infiltrating the literary elite which excludes plebeians like me.

Upon reflection, the book has grown in my favor. But slowly. I know that good art is often characterized by a certain measure of ambiguity allowing understanding at multiple depths. So perhaps – no promises – perhaps I’ll return to Tinkers some day, and puzzle again over what makes it tick.


Complexity Yields not to Law




  1. Staci Thomas

    Fabulous review. I love your point about it being non-heroic.

    As you’ll see, I liked it much more than you did. The non-writer that I am, I noticed (but barely) the “non-linear narrative” but it didn’t bother me too much because I was too impressed with the prose. I’m simply stunned by the talent, so I probably ignore the stuff to which I’m supposed to pay attention. Maybe my experience with it was more enjoyable because I read it the old fashioned way.

    Again, lovely review.

    • So here is how we respond differently: the guy writes better than I and so I try to find some way to be critical and bring him down a notch or two closer to me. You see the same thing, and knock yourself down a notch or two and become critical of your own critical faculties. Do you feel a scolding coming on?!

      It may be that because you are so much younger than I am (!) that you track better with this narrative style. Savvy?

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