To say Paul Harding’s debut novel, Tinkers,came out of nowhere would be a gross understatement. The story of a New England man’s deathbed recounting his intricate family history released by tiny Bellevue Literary Press, Tinkers racked up major awards, becoming the first novel from a small press to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction since A Confederacy Of Dunces in 1981. But the story of how the big presses missed out on one of the most fully realized debuts in years paled in comparison to what Harding accomplished in less than 200 pages, becoming a major literary figure seemingly overnight.
Four years later, Harding now has his proper place in the big leagues. Enon, his second novel, has the pressure of a major-label debut added to the magnificent success of Tinkers. And unlike other prize-winning authors who look to demonstrate range within their style when publishing a second book, Harding doubled down. Enon isn’t a strict sequel to Tinkers, but its protagonist, Charlie Crosby, is the grandson of the dying protagonist in the previous novel, and he’s returned to raise his family in the same Massachusetts town a few generations later. The economic and concise prose similarly bounces around in Charlie’s life, recounting out-of-order anecdotes about loved ones that weave together in a complicated history that remains easy to parse.
Tinkers began with a line that represented the novel in microcosm: “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.” Enon begins in similar fashion, though shifting from omniscient third to Charlie’s first-person voice as he sets the scene: His 13-year-old daughter Kate was struck and killed while riding her bike, and he separated from his wife soon after. It’s devastatingly simple, and as Harding undulates between Charlie’s childhood memories—obliquely revisiting characters from Tinkers from a child’s perspective—and his deep, unfathomable grief, Enon achieves a striking emotional depth while never approaching confusion.
This should be boring. Enon should feel repetitive and hopelessly indebted to the long, unchanging tradition of small-town New England novels. It should be impossible for another book with Robert Frost-ian landscapes to feel so gripping and poignantly observed. But Harding has a gift for unfurling narrow yet kaleidoscopic regional history—there are shades of Sherwood Anderson and even a bit of William Faulkner. Charlie recalls seemingly unmemorable events in his life, like learning to play cribbage or feeding birds along a path in the woods, and ties them to grief-stained memories of showing his daughter the same things. The generational echoes cause Charlie to whither and unravel in pain, but Enon is more about how his individual story connects to his ancestors and those around him.
Harding’s patchwork of quotidian events amid piercing emotional devastation is the ideal descendant of another classic portrait of New England life: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. As the stage manager says in the opening, “This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.” Tinkers and Enon fall directly within the purview of that quote, making a rich tradition fresh again. Tinkers was an unexpected gem, but that the follow-up should contain an equally affecting emotional mosaic is just as delightfully surprising.