I haven’t read Harding’s Pulitzer-winning Tinkers (2009), to my continued consternation. I had checked it out of the library twice and just never got around to it, so I bought a copy. I do this all the time, thinking time will suddenly materialize if I’ve paid for the book. Magical Thinking is a bitch. When NetGalley offered me an eBook review copy of Enon, I thought, “Finally! I’ll read something by Paul Harding, then I’ll feel better about myself.” How did that work out for me? Gosh. I almost wish you hadn’t asked.
Enon continues the story begun in Tinkers, picking up with Charlie Crosby grown to adulthood, head of a family of his own. Uneasily married to his wife Susan, things between them snap after they lose their only child, Kate, when she’s hit by a car riding her bike home from the beach with a friend. Kate is a great kid, an athletic girl who enjoys life and a great relationship with her parents, especially her father. Kate is her father’s sidekick. They roam the historic town of Enon, where he grew up, the father re-living his childhood by showing Kate all the key places from his earlier life. And Kate loves it all. She’s a good sport, interested and patient. But she’s also the sole reason her parents are together, otherwise they’d have broken apart.
Once she’s gone, Charlie’s wife Susan leaves almost immediately, ostensibly to spend time away with her family, in Minnesota. She asks Charlie to come but he tells her she should go alone, only days after Kate’s funeral. When she leaves Charlie knows he’ll never see her again:
I knew it was all wrong, that I was snipping the single, thin thread by which our marriage was barely still suspended. But I felt it was my obligation. I’d spent the week since the funeral lying on the couch in a daze. I’d lost my mind and punched a hole in the wall and broken my hand so that I couldn’t work or do much of anything that needed doing. I thought, poor Sue. She shouldn’t have to deal with me. I’m no good for her, I thought. She’s being loving and gracious because she has a good heart, but I just can’t ask her to stick this out.
Charlie lets her go so easily it’s more than a little surprising. Of course he’s spent these early days after trauma in a daze! Who wouldn’t? Lots of marriages fall apart following the death of a child but the abrupt nature of this case, when the two had been getting along – on the surface – quite well, rings false. There’s no indication things are so bad they couldn’t feel the need to mourn together and little reasoning behind a mother wanting to leave the last place her child had occupied before her sudden and violent death. To just pick up and go? Unlikely.
Everything in the early part of this book comes so quickly and easily, giving the reader no time to feel much for Kate, to mourn her loss. No time to feel anything for the characters or even see them as real people. Harding glosses over the funeral, doesn’t address who hit her and if anything legal transpired. We don’t know her friend, how she felt… There’s just nothing.
The beginning is almost cold, the characters wooden, the dialogue forced. I was reading a Pulitzer winner, squirming in my seat uncomfortably, feeling almost embarrassed for him. Uncomfortable writing makes for equally uncomfortable reading:
” Charlie, Kate was killed. She was on her bike, near the lake, and a car hit her and killed her, Charlie.” Susan’s voice broke. A car honked its horn behind me and a woman yelled. My car was moving backward. I stomped the brake. A woman out in the rain, with her hair pulled back in a ponytail, still wearing sunglasses for some reason, pounded on my window.
The woman in the rain looked ferocious, water soaking her hair and her clothes and her expensive training sneakers and streaming down her face. I felt as if I’d been struck on the head and could not shake my brain back into place.
I held up the phone, allowing the rain to pelt it, as if it might be an adequate explanation.
“My daughter,” I said. “This – that’s my wife saying my daughter just died.”
Wooden and false. That’s how it felt.
Later in the book the natural description gets better, as Charlie walks the land he loves. Occasionally it hits poetic notes but honestly it never completely redeems itself. Whereas the beginning was truly awkward and wooden, the rest is less so but still astonishing considering the reception of his first novel, all the praise and reputation it garnered him. Where was that author in Enon?
But you’ll see little admission of this from the critics. Only my trusty Washington Post refused to let Harding’s reputation exempt him from the faults of this second book:
“Dialogue is not a Harding strong suit, which makes scenes such as Charlie’s repeated encounters with his dealer both tedious and difficult to believe. The broader detailing of his deterioration can feel repetitive, as well. But the most problematic part of the realistic narrative is Susan’s exile from it. A week after Kate’s mother leaves, Charlie thinks briefly about calling her, but the idea never crosses his mind again. And while it’s true that losing a child can destroy a marriage — and entirely plausible that Charlie might not be much help to a grieving wife — the notion that he doesn’t even think about her, except in flashback, is simply not credible.
Harding is a richly talented writer whose admirers may find much to reward them in “Enon.” Those coming to his work fresh, however, should pick up a copy of “Tinkers” first.”
Having never read Tinkers, I can only agree with the spirit of the conclusion drawn by reviewer Bob Thompson. I cannot recommend Enon, Tinkers or no Tinkers. It’s a book that should have crushed me. Instead, I had to slog through it impatiently, waiting for it to end. It has a few moments of greatness, little bits in which it managed to hit home, when I felt a stab of his pain. But I should have felt more than a brief prick of it, like a needle hurting only as it penetrates the skin. He should have knocked me sideways, making my mother’s heart ache for his pain. It just isn’t there, not the realism or consistent soaring prose. The good bits are fleeting and brief.
This is the one saddening part in the whole book. How disappointing. I may still read Tinkers or I may pass. I certainly feel no urgency, not anymore.