FICTION: The death of his child sends a father to the brink of madness.
Paul Harding’s second book (after the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Tinkers”) is less a novel than a tone-poem that delves into the depths of searing grief. Charlie Crosby, grandson of the clock tinkerer of the first book, has lost both his daughter and his wife. Thirteen-year-old Kate was riding her bike when she wound up mangled under a car. Charlie and his wife separated soon afterward. A year after the accident, Charlie seems bent on slow self-destruction, dosing himself with painkillers and whiskey. His house has become a shambles. There’s a hole in the wall where he rammed his fist. He sleeps, when he sleeps, on the sofa or behind Kate’s gravestone. He walks the bird sanctuary by the river Enon, compulsively remembering all the things he used to do with his daughter, while weather and season seem to echo every nuance of his sorrow.
Like “Tinkers,” this is a realistic novel pushed to an extreme of yearning and feeling. Where in the first book, characters try to pass through a seam of reality to rejoin some primal energy pulse of the universe, sensing “a secret door that opened on its own to an electric storm spinning somewhere on the edges of the solar system,” here Charlie, a hapless Orpheus, cannot stop himself “from stepping over the same dark threshold, night after night, trying to follow her into the country of the dead in order to fetch her back. … I was ravenous for my child and took to gorging myself in the boneyard, hoping that she might possibly meet me halfway, or just beyond, one night, if only for an instant — step back into her own bare feet, onto the wet grass or fallen leaves or snowy ground of the living Enon, so that we could share just one last human word.”
He has ever stranger hallucinations. Waking in the cemetery snow after a blackout, he shivers under the “cold, wild, staring and ferocious” stars and has a vision of the dead having sledding parties at midnight, “warming their finger bones in blue fires that they kindled in granite urns.”
He has a bizarre image, derived from particle physics, “when two photons are collided … new particles are created,” that Kate’s collision with the car produced “an explosion and a burst of light out of which three cars and three bikes clattered, and three Kates tumbled, too. … One Kate somersaulted onto the sidewalk. Another sailed into the brush. The third vaulted over one of the newly minted cars.”
In a vision, he sees Kate as Nature, in a “verdant and oceanic” dress, with a bodice of willow branches. She is “a princess, repatriated into the wood and the water and the starry sky and the cold ocean abysses broiling.”
The novel pulls back from the brink of madness, ending with Charlie’s return to a more ordinary grief. But it does so with unsatisfying abruptness, through a deus ex machina in the form of a no-nonsense neighbor. So, while “Enon” is a deep and lovely book, it does not rise to the magic of “Tinkers.”
Brigitte Frase is a book critic in Minneapolis.