June 16, 2010

Book review: "Tinkers," by Paul Harding

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Tinkers, by Paul Harding

By Paul Harding
Bellevue Literary Press

Ah, literary awards -- what would we book nerds do without them? In fact, this has quickly grown in the last decade into a fascinating subject for me, ever since becoming a book reviewer and officially entering the edges of the "industry" known as literature, of the curious ways that artistic award both come about and gain their legitimacy, the official and unofficial ways they influence the culture going on around them, sometimes by the titles they pick and sometimes by the even more important rebellions in the arts that form because of what they picked. Just take for example the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, considered by many to be perhaps the second or third most "important" literary award on the planet*, and how this year they chose an almost completely obscure basement-press book by an unknown writer to win it all, Paul Harding's Tinkers on Bellevue Literary Press, which has ignited a firestorm of controversy not only over the pick itself but what it says about the current state of the industry. See, it all started with an attention-getting review of the novel by my alt-lit blogging colleagues over at Bookslut.com (which I think is fair to call the most well-known independent litblog on the planet right now); and this got the attention of someone at The New Yorker, who also ended up favorably reviewing it, which happened at the same time that a book buyer in San Francisco happened to recommend it to a buddy at National Public Radio, which then snowballed and snowballed until becoming a few months ago the darkest horse in the history of dark-horse Pulitzer winners.

So given that this is the first time in history that a blog started the process of a book eventually winning the Pulitzer, many people in the industry are now wondering if this marks an official "passing of the torch," concrete proof that blogs for intellectuals are rapidly overtaking traditional lit journals in terms of reach and influence; but at the same time, given how naked nepotistic this process proved to be, it also calls into question whether the "good ol' egghead network" is still in place but simply in a different form, and that the Pulitzer for decades now has not really denoted the "best book of the year," but is simply an excuse for a small circle of well-connected academic elites to basically jerk each other off once a year (an accusation that has plagued the Pulitzer committee for years, but was especially blatant in this case). And then by picking such a literally unknown book (it had sold less than a thousand copies on the planet before its win) by such a literally unknown writer (this is Harding's very first novel on top of everything else), it's also brought up the question of what the Pulitzer exactly denotes in the first place, whether it literally is supposed to represent merely the technically best manuscript of the last twelve months or if it should also subtly be a comment on a writer's entire career, and the overall effect they've had on general society, like what the more prestigious Nobel Prize does explicitly.

Whew -- that's a lot of questions for a book that's less than 200 large-type pages, and can be read in a single day! And in fact this is one of the very first things you notice about Tinkers when you sit down to read it, like I myself did last week -- that especially when you consider its subject matter, it's actually more a long novella than it is a full novel, immediately calling into question before even reading the first page whether such a manuscript should even be in the running for "best book of the year." And speaking of that storyline, that's another early obstacle for the book to overcome, that it features barely any plot to speak of, besides the sketchy idea that as a genteel elderly New Englander slowly dies, he has a series of flashbacks to isolated incidents from his impossibly charming rural youth, examining the relationship he had with his father and how they were both known for their love of "tinkering around" with things. As such, then, the book many times comes off less like a unified three-act novel and more like a slapped-together series of abandoned short stories; and while I understand that such a thing is tolerated and even sometimes loved by the academes who pick each year's winner, it again calls into question before even starting of whether such a book should even really be in the running in the first place for "best of the year."

In fact, once you start reading it, it becomes clear that Tinkers is a book that only academes could love, and that they're going to love it expressly for academic reasons -- because it features fancy writing that deliberately calls attention to itself, for example, because it concentrates much more on character than on plot, because it features that inexplicably popular theme among professors, the whiny small-town loser who constantly complains in these vague ways about their do-nothing life. And again, that's fine for what it is, and I've been known to occasionally enjoy such books myself, but it calls into question whether such a non-entity of a story should really be considered the best book of the year, not to mention the more general question of just how much of such literary finery should be considered too much literary finery. I mean, here's a typical sentence from the book, culled from the hundreds of two- and three-page single paragraphs found throughout, and you can tell me what exactly you think of it --

"A wind would come up through the trees, sounding like a chorus, so like a breath then, so sounding like a breath, the breath of thousands of souls gathering itself up somewhere in the timber lining the bowls and depressions behind the worn mountains the way thunderstorms did and crawling up their backs the way the thunderstorms did, too, which you couldn't hear, quite, but felt barometrically -- a contraction or flattening as of tone as everything compressed in front of it, again, which you couldn't see, quite, but instead could almost see the result of -- water flattening, so the light coming off of it shifted angles, the grass stiffening, so it went from green to silver, the swallows flitting over the pond all being pushed forward and then falling back to their original positions as they corrected for the change, as if the wind were sending something in front of it."

Grating your teeth yet? No? Is your English Department hiring?

Just so there's no mistake, let me admit that I did end up liking Tinkers, and came across lots of little stories within it that I was thoroughly charmed by -- for a good example, the whole story about the crazed hillbilly in the woods during our elderly narrator's youth, who it turned out after his death had actually been a classmate of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and who owned a signed, first-edition copy of The Scarlet Letter that he had kept carefully bundled in a hole in the ground out by the cave he lived in his entire life. But I have to confess, I found this far from the best of the 150 books published in 2009 that I've now read, and I'm fairly certain wouldn't have even made my top-twenty list last year if I had read it when it first came out; and that's a real shame, because just as I believe in CCLaP's mission to highlight unknown books you might never otherwise hear of, so too do I believe in occasionally celebrating the literal best of what our industry has to offer each year as well, which is the real goal of the Pulitzer, a job I feel that they really just failed at this particular year. Although it gets a limited recommendation today, especially among academes and those who like academic literature, it's not a book I recommend going out of your way to pick up, and is a winner I suspect will be quickly forgotten by history at large.

Out of 10: 8.0

Read even more about Tinkers: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

*Most people agree that the Nobel Prize is the most prestigious and therefore most "important" literary award on the planet; but among English speakers, there is then much debate over what comes next, the American Pulitzer Prize or the UK Booker Prize (which is not to even mention all the various national awards in other languages, which can be considered on the same level). Below that then might be considered such mid-tier honorifics as the National Book Award, Orange Prize, PEN/Faulkner Award and National Book Critics Circle Award; then below this in prestige would be the various top prizes for different genre books out there, crime-novel Edgars and horror-novel Stokers and sci-fi Hugos and the like, as well as small-press awards such as the Pushcart Prize.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:21 PM, June 16, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |