by Paul Harding
"Time Present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation." - T. S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton"
George Washington Crosby died. That, in sum , is the plot of this short novel, but within that death there is told a story of a life, a family, and a world made interesting through the beautiful prose of Paul Harding.
The book could have been called As I Lay Dying, but that title has already been used; it could have been called Clocks, or Timepieces, for that is one motif that recurs again and again in the story of George and his family, especially his father.
"That was it, he realized; the clock had run down." (p 33)
As we count down the hours until his death we experience images of his dreams, of his life, and of nature. Harding's prose brings each small detail alive as he shares the wonder of a life lived full of things, of tinkering, odd jobs, family interests, and disinterests. It is written with details sure to bring personal memories to the mind of the reader. It did for me, not that the small town may have been similar to my own, or not that the incidents might suggest ones I experienced; but one reference, to a Cribbage Board, brought back fond memories of learning how to play Cribbage and playing it with my Parents, Grandparents, and family. I still have a Cribbage Board hidden away in a closet, behind my Chess set. George's memories were like that, hidden away in the closets of his past, behind events long forgotten until the last days of his delirium.
We find out that George could not, or at least felt he could not, fill his father's shoes. Yet we are not told, but shown how, in a dream, George goes looking for his father and puts on his father's old boots which are too big for his feet, requiring additional layers of socks to make them fit. That is the way of this story: "Choose any hour on the clock. It is possible, then, to conceive that the clock's purpose is to return the hands back to that time . . ." (p 179) Thus the hands on the clocks go around and signal both the past and the present and, ultimately, the end.
Paul Harding has written a simple, subtle, and surely beautiful story about a man and his memories. As a story of one man's death it reminded me of Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil. Each story provides meaning, if that is possible, using exceptionally poetic prose to share the final dreams and thoughts of one man who has reached his end.