As George Lay Dying
How a first novel set in rural Maine won the Pulitzer Prize.
- By: Edgar Allen Beem
In an American book scene dominated by formulaic block-busters, fast-paced thrillers, noir Swedish whodunits, vampires, chick lit, and celebrity schmaltz, a lyrical little first novel written by a former rock drummer and published by an odd little literary press unexpectedly and deservedly won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Set in rural Maine and suburban Massachusetts, Tinkers (Bellevue Literary Press, New York, New York; Paperback; 191 pages; $14.95) by Paul Harding is a fragmented meditation on life, death, and family in writerly prose that often reads like poetry. It is not plot or action that drives Tinkers; it is the power of Paul Harding’s elegant words and empathetic imagination.
The essential storyline is this: George Washington Crosby, an eighty-year-old retired guidance counselor and self-taught horologist, lies on his deathbed, hallucinating and remembering as he tries to make sense of his life before he loses it to renal failure. The primary focus of his erratic memories is his father, an itinerant peddler and tinker in rural Maine who abandoned the family when he discovered that his wife, no longer able to cope with his grand mal epileptic seizures, was planning to have him committed to the Eastern Maine State Hospital in Bangor.
Paul Harding, 43, is a native of Wenham, Massachusetts, and a graduate of the University of Massachusetts, where he started Cold Water Flat, a rock band for which he played drums between 1990 and 1997. Harding subsequently turned to writing and earned his MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where Tinkers began life as a short story.
The inspiration for Tinkers was Harding’s maternal grandfather, who grew up in Garland, Maine, and later moved to Dexter. Harding’s epileptic great-grandfather did, in fact, abandon the family when he learned that his wife, Harding’s great-grandmother, was planning to have him committed.
Harding, who now lives in Georgetown, Massachusetts, apprenticed for a time as a clock repairman with his grandfather and also comes to Maine regularly to fly-fish, so the delirious, disjointed narrative of Tinkers is punctuated both by a fictional eighteenth-century treatise on horology and by Thoreauvian evocations of the natural world surrounding his fictional West Cove, Maine, modeled on the Greenville and Moosehead Lake region.
“Wind combed through the fir trees around the rim of the pond like a rumor, like the murmur of old men muttering about the storm behind the mountain. The storm came up from behind the mountain, shrouding the peak. Lightning crawled down the mountain and drank at the water, lapped the shallows with electric tongues, stunning bolt-eyed frogs and small trout and silver minnows. Thunder cracked like falling timber and shook the cabin as it clapped the water skin.”
“All of the more lyrical descriptions of the water and the trout and the moon and the boats and mayfly hatches and bats striking at fishing flies in Tinkers,” says Paul Harding, “are derived from fishing West Branch Pond, and occasionally Big Lyford Pond nearby.”
After Tinkers suffered the usual rounds of rejections from major publishers, Harding put the manuscript away for a few years. He eventually found a publisher in Bellevue Literary Press, a project of the New York University School of Medicine that specializes in “literary and authoritative fiction and nonfiction at the nexus of the arts and the sciences, with a special focus on medicine.”
Erika Goldman, publisher and editorial director of Bellevue Literary Press, wept at the heartbreaking beauty of Harding’s prose and became the first of many angels who championed Tinkers. “From very early on,” she says, “Tinkers won a loyal, passionate following. Our West Coast sales rep fell in love with it and pledged to ‘make it a bestseller,’ building a momentum of support among indie booksellers that led to its becoming an ‘Indie Next’ featured title and that continues to this day.”
Another of the Tinkers angels was Michele Filgate, events coordinator at RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
“I’m slightly obsessed with Tinkers because it’s just so darn good,” Michele Filgate writes on the RiverRun Web site. “If you value writing over plot, you’ll love Paul Harding’s first work of fiction.”
Erika Goldman credits Filgate for making sure that former New York Times Book Review editor Rebecca Sinkler read Tinkers. Sinkler owns a home in Center Sandwich, New Hampshire, and chaired the 2010 Pultizer Prize fiction committee.
In awarding the ten thousand-dollar Pulitzer Prize to Harding, the Pulitzer committee cited Tinkers as “a powerful celebration of life in which a New England father and son, through suffering and joy, transcend their imprisoning lives and offer new ways of perceiving the world and mortality.”
“Everything is made to perish; the wonder of anything at all is that it has not already done so. No, he thought. The wonder of anything is that it was made in the first place. What persists beyond this cataclysm of making and unmaking?”
In the beginning was the word, and, with Paul Harding’s elegiac little novel, in the end it is his words that persist.
- By: Edgar Allen Beem