A Personal Look at ‘Tinkers’

One of the best qualities of a good book is that it stays with you long after book’s end — and occasionally adds something to personal experience. “Tinkers” by Paul Harding (reviewed here, and with publisher’s terrific background story here) keeps doing that and more.

I find myself pondering one passage – passed over at first reading – in which a father who has severe dementia wanders away from his family home in rural Maine.

His son has watched his father “receding from human circumstance” and sets out to find him.

As the boy walks through a corn field, he imagines “breaking an ear from its stalk, peeling its husk, and finding my father’s teeth lining the cob. They were clean and white, but worn like his. Strands of my father’s hair encased the teeth instead of cornsilk.”

Later “as I hiked through the woods, I imagined peeling the bark from a birch tree, the outer layers supple, like skin… I would cut a seam in the wood, prying it open an inch at a time, and find a long bone encased in the middle of the trunk.”

The Opposite of Death

These images provide another example of “the opposite of death,” Harding’s notion that our bodies are reabsorbed by nature in such a wondrous exchange of matter that the human mind tends to glorify and even itemize the body’s contributions.

Granted, the boy’s vision of his father’s bodily parts reorganized in nature seems a bit fantastic. But like so much of this extraordinary book, events in the characters’ lives have an unseen effect on readers’ lives.

This past week I remembered having a similar experience going to the theater in New York after the death of my brother, who was for many years a stage manager, director and producer. He won a Tony for “La Cage Aux Folles,” but his lengthy climb to success had stretched through many plays and musicals up and down ol’ Broadway.

For a long time after he died I would attend a play and not just imagine him in rehearsal but see his tall (6’4″) body embedded in the smooth wood of the stage, or stretched along the proscenium walls, or shining down from the ornate chandelier. If I went to a theater where he once had a production going, unless the drama onstage proved absolutely riveting, I’d find myself weeping right in the middle of the play, even if it was a comedy.

The sense that my brother was there surrounding me would become so intense that I had to open my mouth to let the tears stream in so that others in the audience – who may have been falling off their chairs laughing – wouldn’t be alarmed by the wipings and snortings of this strange escapee in their midst.

A Stop, Not an End

Reading “Tinkers” gives us feeling that transformation is going on in varying cycles – sometimes so slowly it feels like permanence – all around us. In this context, death may be a stop, but it’s not an end, because the cycle always continues.

What a surprise (or is it, I wondered), then, to come upon a similar discovery by Slate.com’s Meghan O’Rourke in a recent article on grief.

After her mother’s death, O’Rourke finds herself drawn to the desert to think about her mom in what she calls “a majesty outside of my comprehension.” Something about the sky and wind calls her attention. People talk about “finding a metaphor” for the passing of a loved one, and already Meghan has seen “a distinctly maternal cast” to the way a tree shifts in the wind.

But in the desert, “I do not say to myself that my mother is like the wind,” she writes. “I think she is the wind. I feel her.” Then again at Joshua Tree National Park, she writes: “Being alone under the warm blue sky made me feel closer to my mother. I felt I could detect her in the haze at the horizons.”

I dunno. There’s a nerve “Tinkers” strikes so deftly that scenes from the book – and parallel events from other contexts – keep coming back in a very Faulknerian way.

It’s as though you read the words on the page, but they seem to go right past your eyes to an invisible core. From the author’s imagination to the reader’s mind, a thought travels through the ether of storytelling and bingo, something very literary and eternal happens.