Podcast • August 26, 2013

Paul Harding, Transcendentalist, From Tinkers to Enon

Short form: Tinkers was no fluke — the little gem of a novel that caught a word-of-mouth wave and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010; it’s the snowy paperback still stacked like bait around the ...

Short form: Tinkers was no fluke — the little gem of a novel that caught a word-of-mouth wave and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010; it’s the snowy paperback still stacked like bait around the cash register of every bookstore I go into. Enon is Paul Harding’s spooky, Hawthorny and thoroughly worthy sequel three years later. The story lurches into sudden death and a year of dissolute darkness among descendants of that Crosby family of peddlers and mechanics out of the Maine backwoods. Enon is set in the semi-rural suburbs of Boston; it’s a present-day ghost story, a sad one at that. But there’s a strong continuity in the quirky traditions of the Crosby clan, as well as in the uncommonly thoughtful craft of the author. In my reading, Enon cements Paul Harding’s place as a true prince of New England letters, spiritual heir to Emerson and Thoreau, close student of Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens. As Tinkers revealed, Harding is a Transcendentalist for our time, in Emerson’s definition of the type: “He believes in miracle, in the perpepetual openness of the human mind to new influx of light and power; he believes in inspiration, and in ecstasy.” In Enon, the 30-something protagonist Charlie Crosby, unhinged at the loss of his 13-year-old daughter, could remind you of Emerson himself in the essay “Experience,” recounting his soul’s disarray after the death of his boy Waldo, of scarlet fever, in 1842. In an uncannily Emersonian summing up at the end of Enon, Charlie Crosby says: “I am a connoisseur of the day. Sometimes I sit in tears. Sometimes I sit in a wordless, inexplicable kind of brokenhearted joy.” Listening to Paul Harding read, I keep hearing another great teacher, the immortal jazz drummer Elvin Jones of the classic Coltrane quartet. Paul Harding was a touring rock drummer in his time, and an Elvin worshipper. In our first conversation four years ago, Paul observed that the differences between drumming and writing are superficial. “Having been a drummer, I write by ear. I write by rhythm, you know,” he said. So the reader keeps listening for Elvin in Enon, and I hear lots of him — when, for example, Charlie remembers his boyhood rounds learning clock-repair from his grandfather.

I inserted the key into the keyhole and opened the door. The old air fell out of the clock, dry, held in the cubic shape of the case for who knows how many years until I opened the door and it collapsed out into the contemporary atmosphere, distinct and nearly colonial for a moment… I lifted the lead weight and unhooked it from its pulley wheel. It felt like removing the heavy heart of the clock. I laid the weight on a rug at the foot of the stairs. It thudded onto the wool like an object from another, outsized planet with twice the gravity of our own. A heavy leaded heart, I thought. That has to do, too, with the burning ember in the center of the house.

Charlie Crosby, on his apprenticeship with George Washington Crosby, his grandfather in Enon, Chapter 2.

Isn’t he still writing rhythms, I asked.

Absolutely. I think, going back to Emerson, of fully inhabiting the moment and the idea of improvisation: when you’re a musician or a writer or a painter or a dancer, you translate the experience of that moment into your medium at a high level of improvisation. If you’re Elvin Jones, and you’re trying to make art that will engage the complexity of the human mind, you’re using all four limbs and all sorts of different tempos and textures and juxtapositions to make this elegant whole. That’s what I think of trying to do with writing, and what better medium than language – the medium that has the capacity to hold in itself all the complexity to satisfy an engaged and amenable reader? I’m thinking lyrically, trying to find the time signature, the meter of description. It’s a kind of advance and retreat, maybe it’s in free verse or free time, maybe a little bit more like Ornette Coleman, again it’s the tentativeness, the improvisation. When I read that out loud, sometimes I don’t know where the beats are going to land, because rereading them is just like the process of writing them, and when I wrote them I didn’t know where I was going to land either…

Paul Harding, in conversation with Chris Lydon in Essex, Massachusetts, August 2013.

This is the way a modern Transcendentalist writes. There are hearts in his clocks, and souls in his characters, both living and dead.

Podcast • May 7, 2009

Paul Harding’s Magical ‘Tinkers’

What is the rock drummer thinking? Well, if he’s the dazzling first-novelist Paul Harding of Tinkers, the guy at the drums in the band known as “Cold Water Flat” was channeling Elvin Jones, reinventing time ...

Paul HardingWhat is the rock drummer thinking? Well, if he’s the dazzling first-novelist Paul Harding of Tinkers, the guy at the drums in the band known as “Cold Water Flat” was channeling Elvin Jones, reinventing time with his own hands and feet on drumsticks and pedals. He was listening to hear how sound works, how the world works, how he works. He may have been composing a contrapuntal bit of narrative that turns up on paper in this exchange between an itinerant mule-and-cart peddlar named Howard Aaron Crosby and his customers in the backwoods of Maine, circa 1900.

Where’s the soap?

This is the soap.

The box is different.

Yes, they changed it.

What was wrong with the old box?


Why’d they change it?

Because the soap is better.

The soap is different?


Nothing wrong with the old soap.

Of course not, but this is better.

Nothing wrong with the old soap. How can it be better?

Well, it cleans better.

Cleaned fine before.

This cleans better — and faster.

Well, I’ll just take a box of the normal soap.

This is the normal soap now.

I can’t get my normal soap?

This is the normal soap; I guarantee it.

Well I don’t like to try a new soap.

It’s not new.

Just as you say, Mr. Crosby. Just as you say.

Well, ma’am, I need another penny.

Another penny? For what?

The soap is a penny more, now that it’s better.

I have to pay a penny more for different soap in a blue box? I’ll just take a box of my normal soap.

From Tinkers by Paul Harding, pages 13 – 14. Bellevue Literary Press, New York, 2009.

Paul Harding’s prose in that moment can remind you of Marshall Dodge’s old “Bert and I” Maine stories. It can also sound like music: “Tinker, tinker. Tin, tin, tin. Tintinnabulation. There was the ring of pots and buckets…” We hear light percussive sounds of a human voice, repetitions finding a rhythm. We hear a musician becoming a writer — not a wild a leap, he observes in conversation.

The differences between being a rock drummer and writing are superficial. The obvious ones: you’re playing with a couple of other people on stage, and you’re doing it at an ungodly volume. I’m clinically half deaf and I have tinnitus and a ringing in my ear all the time. But writing scratches the same itch… Having been a drummer I write by ear. I write by rhythm, you know. I just think of the rhythm of the sentence, and there’s a certain number of beats in a sentence, in a phrase, in longer passages. So there’s a kind of arranging. And then certainly in all these multigenerational things going on in Tinkers, I’m just fascinated by the experience of time, of being in time, and all these characters thinking about time and all that. As a drummer… you can futz around with all sorts of time signatures and all sorts of beats. You can play a time signature within another time signature. You can do all that sort of stuff. It’s all narrative, and narrative is all about time. So that’s what you’re doing with the writing, too.

I saw Elvin Jones of the famous Coltrane quartet several dozen times and had the opportunity to sit right in front of him and watch what he did with time. He could tap into the depths of the universe… Drumming is multi-tasking, it’s orchestration. You think of it as a string quartet — in the way you can play counterpoint with yourself, with your own different limbs, that kind of thing. I think of that as the way of making narrative, too. Any given scene has different strata. You can have things moving very nimbly, very quickly in one level of the writing, with larger, deeper cycles going on beneath. And you can work all that contrast and counterpoint. It’s the way you actually pull depth and dimensionality out of things.

Paul Harding in conversation with Chris Lydon, in Essex, Massachusetts, May 5, 2009.

Paul Harding is also a self-taught modern New England transcendentalist, out of the Thoreau and Emerson school, who read his way into an original inner life. Marilynne Robinson at the Iowa Writers Workshop eased his transition from the drums to the keyboard. He’s read everything — been touched by Henry James and Proust and Carlos Fuentes and Michael Ondatje, among others — and he’s taught writing at Harvard.

Tinkers — as in country peddlars between the 19th and early 20th centuries — is an almost plotless novel, constructed as carefully as a clock, about fathers dying, thinking about their sons, and their fathers. It is a marvel on every page.