Paul Harding


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Tinkers Summary

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Tinkers (2009) by American novelist Paul Harding follows the thoughts of an elderly man on his deathbed as he re-lives his childhood and reveals the life of his estranged father. Tinkers, Harding’s first novel, was the surprise winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. The manuscript sat in Harding’s study for five years before it was published by a small press; Harding had assumed that it would never be published. The work was praised for its rich language, parallel narratives of two men, creative use of diaries and repair manuals, and the occasional stream-of-conscious prose. Its themes include loss, memory, guilt, and love. Tinkers’ nonlinear structure mimics the protagonist’s swirling memories and chaotic hallucinations.

Eighty-seven-year-old George Washington Crosby, a grandfather and former watchmaker, starts to hallucinate eight days before his death in the house he built for his family. He assumes he’s still in Massachusetts. His mind wanders to all the relationships he’s had and all the places he’s been, including Kansas, Florida, and Washington. In fact, he senses that his wife and grandchildren from those respective states are with him now during his final moments. He is bedridden from cancer; his kidneys are rapidly failing.

The story of his father then takes over. Howard Aaron Crosby is a poor, hard-working salesman. He is also known as a “tinker,” i.e. a man who can fix anything, or a “jack of all trades.” He goes around selling farm equipment to equally poor families in Maine in the 1920s. Under such dire conditions, Howard is not so happy, and neither is his wife, Kathleen, who badgers him constantly to work harder to care for his four young children, of which George Crosby is the eldest.

Howard works, but he’s not cut out to be a salesman. He has a gentle spirit and would make a far better poet. He’s also an epileptic, a (at the time) misunderstood neurological condition that he and his wife want to keep hidden. When he senses an epileptic fit coming, he runs away into the woods, even if he’s in the middle of a conversation. Such unexplained behavior naturally gets people talking.

One night, he has a fit so bad that George, then twelve years old, walks up to him to see if he can help. He tries placing a wooden spoon in Howard’s mouth to prevent him from biting off his own tongue. Howard inadvertently bites George very hard, and the boy has to visit the hospital. There, a doctor listens to Kathleen tell the story. He advises her to take Howard away from the children, handing her a pamphlet for the Eastern Maine State Hospital. She agrees this is the best path for everyone.

Instead of getting committed to the cruel looney bin, Howard abandons his family. He is forced to change his name. Later, he takes a second wife. Meanwhile, Kathleen moves the family to Massachusetts, where she has some family. George continues to both love and hate his father.

The story returns to George who is dying in a loaned hospital bed in his dining room. He thinks about his life after retirement. For some reason, he gained an interest in fixing clocks. He becomes greatly skilled in it, charging people for the service. A child of the Great Depression, he saves all the money in safety deposit boxes, then buries them around town.

As he lies dying, he considers how a human body is like a clock: through memory, they can be fixed up again and functional; unremembered, they can also break down. On a symbolic level, remembering someone is a way to reactive the clockwork of their life.

George had a normal, fairly happy life, considering his impoverished background and being raised by a single mother. He attended a state school to earn a degree in engineering. He spent his professional career teaching math in high schools.

On his deathbed, Howard starts to forgive his father. He realizes there were strong reasons for his forced exodus from his family. George’s life, like his father’s life, didn’t go entirely to plan. They had to work like tinkers, responding to obstacles, and moving forward with their lives.
George goes unconscious for two days.

He is lucid for another two days, which are his last. He wants to tell his family where they can find all the money he’s hidden from fixing clocks, but he’s physically unable to talk.

The narrative seamlessly slips into Howard’s life. Howard finds work in Philadelphia as a humble grocery stock clerk. In 1972, he reads a book at night, briefly talks about it to his wife, then goes to sleep. He, of course, had no warning that that discussion would be his last and he would die in his sleep.

George then hallucinates (or remembers) a story from 1952. This is when Howard’s own mother died around Christmas. Then George’s memory skips to 1953. In the hallucination, which feels like a memory, Howard rings the doorbell as George, his wife, and his two daughters were sitting to eat. They are reunited for the first time in nearly seven decades. This is George’s final memory.