Everyone has been talking about Paul Harding and Tinkers, the under-the-radar winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I was excited to read about Mr. Harding and his improbable story not only because Tinkers sounds like the kind of book I enjoy (it received a rare, glowing blurb from Marilynne Robinson), but also because his publisher, Bellevue Literary Press, also published A Proper Knowledge, another smart, meditative, lyrical novel (which happens to be by my friend and teacher Michelle Latiolais).
A Proper Knowledge (which shares a spare, lovely cover aesthetic with Tinkers) is about a psychiatrist who works with autistic children yet remains in many ways as isolated as his patients. He’s still grieving over the death, years before, of his adolescent sister, and his work (and his brittle intelligence and perhaps his relationship with his mother) have made it difficult for him to get close to anyone outside of his family. A Proper Knowledge is a love story, but it’s also a wonderful examination of individualism and creativity. Elizabeth Tallent said, “this novel is a refuge, not because it elides trauma or sorrow, but because it confronts them with gallant and unswerving clarity. A thousand things are noticed in this novel that you won’t have seen in fiction before. Don’t be fooled: for all the delicacy of its language this is a work of burning ferocity.”
I think that’s one of the things we often get when we buy books from smaller presses, books that aren’t in the display windows at the big booksellers–something we haven’t seen before, and that we might pick up again, years later, because we haven’t seen it since and because we remember not only the story but the experience of reading it, the surprise and pleasure. Robinson’s Housekeeping, another eccentric award-winner, is one of the books I reread this winter; I shared a short passage with my students this week when we were talking about narrative quiet, idiosyncracy, and floods.
Bellevue’s books, by the way, are thematically linked–from their offices in Bellevue Hospital, they publish fiction and nonfiction with a special interest in medicine and the stories behind illness and medical practice. Their publisher, Jerome Lowenstein, is a professor of medicine at NYU and has been a practicing physician for more than forty years. You can read more about Bellevue’s editorial vision here and here.
I plan to buy Tinkers from my local bookstore soon–the clerk at Barnes & Noble hadn’t heard of it when I asked (this was after the Pulitzer announcement), but someone from my local bookstore, Flyleaf Books, posted about it on Facebook. I hope you’ll check out A Proper Knowledge.