One unheralded author and a tiny publisher received a Pulitzer surprise in 2010 when Paul Harding's “Tinkers” won the big prize for fiction. The debut novelist and his publisher, Bellevue Literary Press (based at the New York University School of Medicine), attracted instant fame with the award. The great story of triumphant little guys got even better when an expanded, prize-fueled audience found out just how good "Tinkers" was.
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Harding's unusual, short book was long on humanity and poetry, elliptically tracing the ebbs and flows of a father and son and the inner workings of their minds. The son grew to be a clock repairman, and his familiarity with the tiny intricacies of timepieces was reflected in the intimate descriptions of the New England landscape and its seasons — and just about everything else that entered the story.
That hallmark — intensely vivid renderings, especially of nature — is everywhere evident in Harding's follow-up, "Enon" (which comes courtesy of a major publisher, Random House). Although it operates in roughly the same setting and centers on Charlie Crosby, the grandson of the clock guru in "Tinkers," it is far from a sequel. Charlie's grandfather appears in some memorable flashbacks, but this book unfolds many years later and bears little allegiance to its predecessor.
Charlie, a very self-aware house painter, narrates throughout with extreme honesty. In the first paragraph, he relates the event that sets the rest of his life in motion: "My only child, Kate, was struck and killed by a car while riding her bicycle home from the beach one afternoon in September, a year ago. She was thirteen. My wife, Susan, and I separated soon afterward."
Initially following the accident, Charlie feels an understandable, extreme grief. Making funeral arrangements and even choosing the clothes in which his daughter will be cremated only heighten the pain. As the days progress, however, it becomes clear that something much deeper afflicts Charlie. Inconsolable, he's unable to help his wife with even the simplest task. "It was like I'd been withered, sapped of spirit," he says.
Shortly thereafter, in a rage, he slams a fist through a wall. Several broken bones make the situation even more dysfunctional. When he decides not to join his wife on an out-of-state visit to her parents, he doesn't quite realize that he will never see her again. She already knows he's lost.
And so, the grip of grief takes Charlie under. At first, he stops working, cleaning, showering. He feels like a castaway. Stale cereal mixed with water provides nourishment, and most days unspool in a stupor wrought from whiskey and pain pills. When the drugs run out, he cajoles a couple of doctors for new scrips. When those run out, he uses his daughter's insurance settlement to pay a dealer exorbitant rates for continued oblivion. When even those run short — in a truly terrifying scene — he breaks into an elderly neighbor's house in search of painkillers.
As the months progress, Charlie's condition continues to deteriorate so that even going to a convenience store for coffee and cigarettes turns into an epic, pathetic journey fraught with fear, awkwardness and not a little comedy.
"Enon," however, is far from merely the story of one man's descent. Amid all the episodes of real-world dissipation, the book's best writing arrives in the many instances where Charlie encounters visions, both good and bad. Haunted by memories of his daughter, he frequently lapses into beautiful reveries of their time together. The author makes simple things — like the pair feeding birds from their hands, or Charlie buying his daughter a bike or remembering their last conversation — both joyful and heartbreaking. Harding conveys the common but powerful bond of parental love with devastating accuracy.
Much less comforting are Charlie's phantasmagoric encounters, which often accompany him during aimless walks in the woods or during desperate middle-of-the-night visits to the cemetery. Charlie, a student of the history of his town (Enon, Mass.), envisions his daughter as she might have been during the village's colonial times. Or he conjures her as part of an elaborate staged spectacle where Enon's dead make up the cast. Worst of all, he sees her, only to have her disappear, consumed by heat or flame or his own psyche. "I pushed deeper into the shade, further toward the border between this life and what lies outside it," Charlie says with both self-knowledge and increasing worry.
The novel provides a harrowing portrait of grief as almost primitive, mythic ritual. The sufferer takes an immensely difficult odyssey — a sort of anti-quest that brings one close to death itself — before the possibility of redemption emerges. It's quite a ride.
"Enon" confirms what the Pulitzer jury decided: Paul Harding — no longer a "find" — is a major voice in American fiction.
John Barron is the former publisher and editor-in-chief of the Chicago Sun-Times. He lives in Oak Park.
By Paul Harding, Random House, 238 pages, $26