Monday, 26 July 2010

'the deep and secret yes'

by Paul Harding

There was a great deal of surprise when Paul Harding was announced as the winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction. A debut novel (the last time a debut won was Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter Of Maladies a decade ago) and one from a tiny publisher (you have to go back even further to 1981 and John Kennedy O'Toole's A Confederacy Of Dunces for a comparable success), Bellevue Literary Press had sold 15,000 copies before it was announced as the winner, but there were plenty who hadn't even heard of it, let alone read it. One can only presume that sales have rocketed since then. In the UK it is published by William Heinemann in a high quality hardback with a spine so stiff it's hard to keep it open, the matt dustjacket highlighting the sheen of the bronze-foiled lettering. You may just see that the dot of the 'i' is in fact a small cog and this is a book that uses clocks and horology as one of its major themes and images. As a clock marks out the divisions of the day and acts as a countdown we will read about three generations of an American family, knowing that the story will end exactly as a clock runs down. Time is played with, much of the novel coming in flashback as George Washington Crosby lies dying in his bed at home, and in the last few days of his life he thinks back on his childhood, remembering his father and in turn his father's father, the narrative moving with the fluidity of memory.

In a stunning opening Harding flexes his stylistic muscles immediately, presenting us with George's dying hallucinations. Rather than seeing his life flash before his eyes we literally see it falling about his ears as he imagines cracks opening in the floorboards beneath him and his bed falling down into the basement. Then the floors above collapse, mementoes and artefacts strewn about him before the house itself loses all integrity.

The roof collapsed, sending down a fresh avalanche of wood and nails, tarpaper and shingles and insulation. There was the sky, filled with flat-topped clouds, cruising like a fleet of anvils across the blue. George had the watery, raw feeling of being outdoors when you are sick. The clouds halted, paused for an instant, and plummeted onto his head.
   The very blue of the sky followed, draining from the heights into that cluttered concrete socket. Next fell the stars, tinkling about him like the ornaments of heaven shaken loose. Finally, the black vastation itself came untacked and draped over the entire heap, covering George's confused obliteration.

It is an ambitious opening and one that introduces many of the books defining features. The prose is ornate, sentences packed with details often extending to breaking point under the weight of their lists. It's intoxicating in these opening pages but I found myself beginning to lose strength midway through the book before rallying myself for the finish. It may be less than 200 pages but there were times when this book felt a lot longer and it seemed to require more time and attention than I expected at the outset. This is not necessarily a bad thing of course and probably says more about my reading habits than anything else. The language isn't so much dense as detailed, much like the intricate workings of the clocks George spent  his life working on and I found myself appreciating the writing far more when I went back to look at sections in order to write up this review. It seems to me that it's a book that can be far better appreciated on a second or even third reading.

George's father, Howard Aaron Crosby, was a tinker in Maine, who drove a cart that amounted to 'a chest of drawers mounted on two axles and wooden spoked wheels.'

There were dozens of drawers, each fitted with a recessed brass ring, pulled open with a hooked forefinger, that contained brushes and wood oil, tooth powder and nylon stockings, shaving soap and straight-edged razors. There were drawers of with shoe shine and boot strings, broom handles and mop heads. There was a secret drawer where he kept four bottles of gin.

There's those lists again, and later some of Harding's trademark language.

He tinkered. Tin pots, wrought iron. Solder melted and cupped in a clay dam. Quicksilver patchwork. Occasionally, a pot hammered back flat, the tinkle of tin sibilant, tiny beneath the lid of the boreal forest. Tinkerbird, coppersmith, but mostly a brush and mop drummer.

You may already be forming an opinion of whether this is the kind of book for you based on the style but Hading has the skill to try many things, coming closer to something like poetry at times.

Tinker, tinker. Tin, tin, tin. Tintinnabulation. There was the ring of pots and buckets. There was also the ring in Howard Crosby's ears, a ring that began at a distance and came closer, until it sat in his ears, then burrowed into them. His head thrummed as if it were a clapper in a bell. Cold hopped onto the tips of his toes and rode on the ripples of the ringing throughout his body until his teeth clattered and his knees faltered and he had to hug himself to keep from unravelling. This was his aura, a cold halo of chemical electricity that encircled him immediately before he was struck by a full seizure.

For Howard has epilepsy and it is something passed over in silence by the family, especially after George, whilst attempting to help his father during a fit, receives a nasty bite on his hand. Howard assumes that this silence 'was one of kindness offered and accepted.' But in fact it is shame. Whilst he rides out with his cart his wife makes plans that will mean George losing his father whilst just a young boy. We will learn a little too about Howard's own father, a preacher who slowly brings disquiet to his congregation, his sermons seeming to veer further and further away from the straight path as his mental faculties decline. In another memorable section Howard goes out into the woods searching for his father, who has gone missing. In an attempt to connect with him he wears his father's boots, three pairs of socks employed to combat their large size, his hat and carries lunch in his fishing basket. He wanders through all the places they had been together, looking for what his father had referred to in his sermon's as 'the deep and secret yes.' It is a search that encapsulates the whole book; men trying to connect with fathers who are lost to them in various ways, a task infinitely harder than the re-assemblage of cogs and wheels.


Emma Young 26 July 2010 at 11:55  

Great review, Will! I love the links you make between the physical world of the book and the themes it addresses. I read this book at the beginning of the year and still think about it now. I absolutely adored it. And the Heinemann edition is beautiful.

bed frames 27 July 2010 at 11:48  

This review just proves that that book is an amazing book. I think I am going to have a great time reading it.

William Rycroft 30 July 2010 at 22:52  

Thank you, the book is definitely a lovely thing to have in your hand. I'm glad you enjoyed it so much Emma, it's the kind of book that I can imagine leaves some people a little cold and others rapturous. Much more fun to be the latter!

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