People like to talk about the miraculous publishing story — from independent press to Pulitzer Prize! — of Paul Harding’s first novel, “Tinkers,” but for me the miracle of “Tinkers” was that it wasn’t terrible. Just hearing that 2009 novel’s premise (from its back cover: “An old man lies dying. As time collapses into memory, he travels deep into his past where he is reunited with his father and relives the wonder and pain of his impoverished New England youth. At once heartbreaking and life affirming . . . ”) was enough to make me cranky, and then sleepy. But to my great surprise, “Tinkers” was not terrible at all. In fact, “Tinkers” is a remarkable, desperate book. It begins as an old Yankee’s deathbed reverie, but it quickly shifts the point of view, setting, era, and then for the next 190 pages it keeps shifting. This makes the book sound messy and that’s the point: “Tinkers” suggests that if life is messy, then you don’t do justice to that life by making its deathbed account structurally tidy.
The problem with miracles — in novels anyway — is that what seems inspired the first time around becomes slack if the miracle maker then attempts to reproduce the miracle. One can sense Harding struggling with this possibility in his new novel, “Enon,” which has only a few things in common with its predecessor: Its narrator is Charlie Crosby, the grandson and great grandson of the two main characters in “Tinkers”; it is set in New England (in the titular town); and the narrative is launched by a character’s death. In “Tinkers,” Charlie’s grandfather George dies what someone out there probably still calls a natural death. But in “Enon,” Kate, Charlie’s thirteen-year-old daughter is killed by a car while riding her bicycle home from the beach.
The only thing that prevents this from cranking up the old melodrama machine is Harding’s matter-of-fact presentation of the event in “Enon”’s first paragraph: “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.” That’s a swift, bracing moment, and in fact, the opening thirty-odd pages of the novel are fantastic for precisely those reasons: they move quickly; they are sad, but they are not maudlin; they are numb, which makes them even sadder, which makes the reader even more grateful for their swiftness.
This leads to another great, terrifying moment, when Charlie says goodbye to his wife Susan after both of them realize that now that Kate is dead their marriage is dead, too: “I kissed her […] and she got into the car and the car pulled out of the driveway and drove off and that was the last time I saw her.” If there is a more accurate depiction of how some marriages end — not with a bang, not even with a whimper — then I don’t want to know what it is.
After Susan leaves, Charlie is left alone; this is where the novel runs into trouble. The novel becomes static (Charlie drinks. He thinks about Kate. He passes out. He wakes up and sees the mess he’s made of his house. Repeat.) Along the way Harding ignores obvious ways his novel could have become less static. Charlie has lived in Enon all his life, and now he works there as a landscaper, and yet no one bothers him. Except for one brief exception, his neighbors don’t check in on him. None of his customers call to say, hey, I’m sorry about your loss, but that was months ago and now my hedges are looking kind of ratty. Most seriously, Charlie’s isolation makes it clear that Harding doesn’t totally know what he wants his protagonist and his novel to be. For instance, Charlie claims about his in-laws that, “My deeply ingrained habit of proceeding by irony was lost on them.” Fine, except that Charlie is the least ironic first person narrator in contemporary fiction. Elsewhere, Harding obviously wants to turn “Enon” into a story of a man’s downward spiral, and while it’s true that Charlie does his fair share of drinking and drugging and even some thieving, he spends at least as much time proclaiming his sorrow and despair and also remembering his sweet relationship with his daughter. It’s as though Harding decided he wanted to write a book about a sardonic, self-destructive man in freefall, except he didn’t want his first person narrator to be too ironic, too self-destructive, lest he be seen unlikable.
All of this is bad news. So why, then, is there so much to admire about “Enon”, even though a good bit of it doesn’t work the way Harding seems to want it to? Here’s why. Reviewers always talk about great writers wrestling with their gifts. This is ridiculous. Writers — great or otherwise — do not wrestle with their gifts; writers wrestle with their limitations. “Enon” makes this clear. Harding is not entirely comfortable writing in the first person. He is not comfortable letting that first person narrator seem too ironic or unlikable. He is not comfortable with contemporary settings. But the most telling thing about “Enon” is that Harding has shown he is not comfortable writing the same book twice. This only bodes well for his next one.