Reading Paul Harding’s second novel, “Enon,” can be a disorienting experience. It’s as if we’ve wandered into the blended fictional worlds of two very different writers.
Writer No. 1 is the Paul Harding whose Pulitzer Prize-winning “Tinkers” has been called an “evocative meditation on the nonlinear nature of a life.” This Harding writes carefully observed, rhythmic prose he once described as “unlineated lyric poetry,” and no one has ever accused him of trying to attract readers with plot.
Writer No. 2 is the Paul Harding who has produced a book that appears — in the beginning, at least — to be far more realistic and story-driven.
Unlike “Tinkers,” which opens with a lengthy description of a dying man’s hallucination, this new novel sets its plot in motion immediately. The only child of Charlie Crosby has been killed in a bicycle accident. He learns of 13-year-old Kate’s death from a cellphone voice-mail message left by his wife, Susan. A mortician tells the couple they must choose clothes for Kate to be cremated in. “Will you go and get her T-shirt and pajama pants?” Susan asks. Charlie does, then collapses in catatonic grief. Later, when she asks him for more help, he puts his fist through a wall and breaks eight bones in his hand.
Susan goes home to her parents in Minnesota. Charlie unplugs their landline and disables his cell, choosing to mourn alone in the Massachusetts town where he grew up. Desperate to get out of the house, yet not wanting to encounter anyone, he starts to “walk the length and breadth of Enon every day,” sticking mainly to woods and meadows, popping pills for his physical pain and swilling whiskey to put himself to sleep at night.
But soon enough, as Writer No. 2 continues this harrowing but relatively straightforward tale — adding details about Charlie’s unraveling and back story about his lost family – Writer No. 1 begins to compete for our attention.
Charlie, it turns out, is the grandson of the late George Crosby, the clock-obsessed protagonist of “Tinkers.” Once, when George and Charlie made a clock-repair house call, they encountered a mechanical model of the solar system known as an orrery. Charlie watched in awe as “the planets tilted and turned on their axes and their moons spun around them” while the machine emitted “a fine, low whir so apt I thought I could hear it harmonizing with the roar of the real universe.” Not long after recalling this moment, the adult Charlie imagines the harmonizing of life and death:
“The woods of Enon are full of very old unmarked graves,” he thinks, “along with the bones of animals and citizens: sheep and dogs, fathers and brothers, oxen and horses, mothers and aunts, pigs and chickens, sons and daughters, anonymous cats and owls, Puritans and Indians, and unnamed infants, getting their bones mixed in the currents of soil and groundwater, migrating beneath the foundations of our houses and the fairways of the golf courses, trading ribs and teeth and shins and knuckles, commuting under baseball diamonds and the beds of streams, snagging up on roots and rocks, shelves of granite and seams of clay.”
I loved this fantasy of a subterranean Enon, especially the perfect use of the word “commuting.” My fantasy, at this point, was that Harding could pull off his bold attempt to harmonize two styles, combining the realistic story of a man’s unimaginable loss with a poetic, non-literal tour through the workings of his consciousness.
Unfortunately, the realistic part unravels almost as fast as Charlie Crosby’s happiness.
One small example: Charlie stops bathing, hangs a pillowcase over the mirror, and shuns human contact except in pursuit of drugs. Seven months after Kate’s death, he finally drags himself off to a convenience store — the trip’s description takes up an excruciating 15 pages — where he buys only coffee and cigarettes. It’s hard not to be distracted by the question of what he’s been eating all this time.
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.
Thompson is a Washington writer. The paperback edition of his book “Born on a Mountaintop” will be published in March.
By Paul Harding
Random House. 238 pp. $26