Monday, 19 July 2010

Book of the Week - Paul Harding, Tinkers

I am travelling in the US at present, so a little detached from UK book releases. However, I see that Paul Harding’s first novel, Tinkers, has just been published in hardcover by Heinemann. In the last couple of years, Tinkers was the surprise success of US literary fiction, winning the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and being hailed as a masterpiece by many critics. It also had an unusual publishing history and has become very collectible, although the boat has been well and truly missed so far as the US editions are concerned.

Harding (born 1967) is a Boston-based author and musician (a drummer), who has taught writing at Harvard University and the University of Iowa. He grew up on the north shore of Boston in the town of Wenham, Massachusetts. As a youth he spent a lot of time "knocking about in the woods" which he attributes to his love of nature. His grandfather fixed clocks and he apprenticed under him, an experience that found its way into his novel Tinkers. After graduating from UMass, he spent time touring with his band in the US and Europe. He had always been a heavy reader and while in the middle of reading Carlos Fuentes' Terra Nostra he remembered putting it down and thinking "this is what I want to do". In When he next had time off from touring with the band he signed up for a summer writing class at Skidmore College in New York. By pure chance his teacher was Marilynne Robinson and through her he learned about the Iowa Writers' Workshop writing program and applied and was accepted. There he studied with Barry Unsworth, Elizabeth McCracken and later Marilynne Robinson. At some point he realized some of the people he admired most were "profoundly religious" and so he spent years reading theology, and was "deeply" influenced by Karl Barth and John Calvin. He considers himself a "self-taught modern New England transcendentalist".

Tinkers was rejected by several publishers before being picked up by a small independent (Bellevue Literary Press) and published in early 2009 as a paperback (3000 – 5000 copies, according to various sources; currently USD 200-300 from secondary sellers). Of more interest to collectors, there was also a small hardcover edition (500 copies, with a subsequent printing of a further 500), most of which went to subscribers to the First Edition Club of independent Californian bookseller BookPassage (not currently available). This was followed by a separate numbered hardcover edition of 750 copies for Powells as part of Indispensable series (one copy currently available at 1800 USD).

This is a great story of individual success for a writer, and an encouragement for all new authors than (at least occasionally) quality writing will bring success. If Harding goes on to have a long and successful career, Tinkers will be the cornerstone of any collection. However, at the moment it seems overpriced for a recent book and I would expect prices to settle somewhat.

“An old man lies dying. Confined to bed in his living room, he sees the walls around him begin to collapse, the windows come loose from their sashes, and the ceiling plaster fall off in great chunks, showering him with a lifetime of debris: newspaper clippings, old photographs, wool jackets, rusty tools, and the mangled brass works of antique clocks. Soon, the clouds from the sky above plummet down on top of him, followed by the stars, till the black night covers him like a shroud. He is hallucinating, in death throes from cancer and kidney failure. A methodical repairer of clocks, he is now finally released from the usual constraints of time and memory to rejoin his father, an epileptic, itinerant peddler, whom he had lost seven decades before. In his return to the wonder and pain of his impoverished childhood in the backwoods of Maine, he recovers a natural world that is at once indifferent to man and inseparable from him, menacing and awe inspiring. Heartbreaking and life affirming, Tinkers is an elegiac meditation on love, loss, and the fierce beauty of nature.”

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