It happened to me once again, just as it had a decade ago, when publisher Erika Goldman gave me a galley of Paul Harding’s Tinkers, a first novel from a small press only a few years old at the time. Back then, when I was co-editorial director of PW, I read the text in a day and a half, a period punctuated by emails to Erika about Harding’s musical prose and diamond-sharp attentions. This time, I began reading a PDF of what will be the 10th-anniversary edition, due out Jan. 1, 2019, celebrating Tinkers’s improbable success—as well as Bellevue Literary Press’s hard-won survival after a period of uncertainty.
Aiming only to refresh my recollection of Harding’s tale of three generations of men wrestling with their lives and spirits in rural Maine, I found myself, three hours later, halfway through the book, aloft in the updraft of extraordinary writing. From the hallucinatory opening pages mapping a dying man’s delirium to the carefully wrought act of weaving grass and sticks and daffodils into a kind of wind instrument, I find myself in complete agreement with Marilynne Robinson, who (in her excellent introduction to the new edition) confesses still to “a kind of sustained wonder at the deftness and delicacy of [Harding’s] language.”
I take a rest when Howard Crosby takes his, arriving at his cabin after a day peddling wares to no profit behind a sorry mule. Howard’s tongue is half-shredded and his body still shivering and “crackling from the voltage” of the epileptic fit he has suffered on the road. He is hours late; his family—wife and four children—sit tensely at the table, cold uneaten suppers before them. Howard proceeds to overstoke his Franklin stove. The family retires for the night. Just before dawn, they all wake at the same time, “drenched in sweat,” assembled like ghosts before “the iron stove glowing white with heat.” An established narrative fever has broken.
Now that I think more about what endures in this book—beyond the fact that it has sold an average of a thousand copies a week for 10 years—it is the voice, to which Robinson offers some literary-historical context. She acclaims Harding’s prose as voice “utterly grounded in craft and inheritance.” The craft and inheritance are not only on the familial level—all the men in Tinkers are, well, tinkerers, with clocks and wares and tricky sermons—but on a literary level, too. Robinson places Harding in “the tradition of American literature that emerged in New England in the nineteenth century—Emerson and Thoreau, Dickinson, Whitman, Melville.”
But all that doesn’t explain how a manuscript rejected by dozens of literary houses large and small found a believer in a fledgling house and went on to capture a Pulitzer Prize and continued commercial success. Was it the presentation, the compact format, the wintry, whiteout cover with the title in lower-case Janson, letter spaced like footprints in the snow? Was it the cast of people in the business—the West Coast sales rep (Lise Solomon) who pressed ARCs into booksellers’ hands; the bookstore buyer (Sheryl Cotleur, then at Book Passage) who sent her personal copy to a reviewer (John Freeman) who selected the novel as one of the best of the year for NPR; the young East Coast bookstore events coordinator (Michele Filgate, then of RiverRun Bookstore) who recommended it to the head of the Pulitzer committee (Rebecca Sinkler)—who each in his or her own way recognized what Robinson cites as an “atemporal, synchronous world, a sort of Eden of what we all deeply know?”
Okay, let’s agree its success was a mix of magic and luck. But ultimately, there are the hard facts that are often bitter ones for writers: sales figures. When nearly 600,000 people go out and put down their money for a story about old New Englanders fighting the elements and themselves, it is in sum one vast congregation—diverse no doubt, unknowable perhaps, like the men in Tinkers, but part of a larger legacy of public consciousness or communal spirit.
Perhaps it is helpful to think back to when Tinkers arrived—at the conjunction of a collapsing American economy and the ascension of the first African-American to the White House. Was there any magic in that timing? Would Tinkers be stillborn if debuting today?
I think not. Ten years later, and seemingly a world away, Tinkers still radiates light and warmth, a reminder that it is still cold out there, that the wintry spaces that separate us can still be traversed by mule and cart—and by art. And, as ever, we need it.
Michael Coffey is the former co-editorial director at PW. His most recent book is Samuel Beckett Is Closed (Foxrock Books).