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Originally published Friday, September 27, 2013 at 5:14 AM

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Paul Harding’s ‘Enon’: solitary grieving in a New England town

Paul Harding’s new novel “Enon” is the story of a man who has lost his beloved teenage daughter and who suffers his grief largely alone. Harding, who won a Pulitzer for his novel “Tinkers,” appears Oct. 4 at Seattle Public Library.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Paul Harding

The author of “Enon” will appear at 7 p.m. next Friday, Oct. 4, Microsoft auditorium of the Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle; free (206-386-4636; spl.org).

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The first paragraph of Paul Harding’s new novel, “Enon,” dispenses with the facts of the story.

“Most men in my family make widows of their wives and orphans of their children. I am the exception. My only child, Kate, was struck and killed by a car while riding her bicycle home from the beach one afternoon in September, a year ago. She was thirteen. My wife, Susan, and I separated soon afterward.”

That’s the short version. The long version, a portrait of a father in mourning, fills the rest of “Enon” (Random House, 238 pp., $26).

It’s a book worth reading from a writer who was a surprise winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for his first novel, a small-press offering titled “Tinkers.” That story went wide, encompassing two generations through the eyes of a dying man, George Washington Crosby. This new one is tightly focused and told by George’s grandson, Charlie, a decent man with a passion for local history who has, suddenly and irreversibly, lost all sense of past, present and future.

“Enon” may sound like a replay of “The Lovely Bones,” another novel about a father dealing with his adolescent daughter’s sudden death. But the difference is significant: Where “Bones” deals with the dynamics of an entire family in mourning, “Enon” has only one person in its sights.

As with his previous novel, Harding sets this one in the fictional town of Enon, Mass., where Charlie has returned to raise his daughter. A college dropout who does landscaping jobs to pay the bills, he has no real attachment to either his work or his customers. The binding glue of his life and marriage is his child.

“Kate gave my life joy,” Charlie tells us. “I loved her totally, and while I loved her, the world was love. Once she was gone, the world seemed to prove nothing more than ruins and the smoldering dreams of monsters.”

In the days after her death, Charlie breaks his hand busting a wall, the modern-day equivalent of shaking his fist at God. His wife takes him to the hospital. Then she’s gone, hardly a blip on our radar, and he spins into a drug- and alcohol-fueled solitude. Where are the neighbors and friends as he grieves? Nowhere to be seen, which is telling. Charlie is a hometown boy, after all, but what Harding makes clear is Enon, a New England village in the spirit of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” has vanished, usurped by part-time residents and strip malls.

As Charlie, unshaven and unrecognized, shops for booze at convenience stores, we see what has been sacrificed in our highly individualistic world: Each watches out for his own. And more than just the loss of community that flows from our highly mobile society, the narcissism of modern-day parenting closes our circle. What about Kate’s friends? Charlie, it seems, could care less.

Meanwhile, a certain irony infuses Charlie’s recap of his daughter’s life. At 13, she was chaffing in her role as Daddy’s girl. Even before she died, Charlie was on the cusp of loss without realizing it. Emotionally, she was pulling away, as teenagers do, when tragedy severed their tie with such astonishing and cruel clarity.

Harding’s novels are relatively short but deceptively dense, revealing a love of language and elusive subjects — the nature of family, memory, mortality — and in this regard “Enon” is a natural sequel to “Tinkers.” But the contrast is striking: In the process of dying, Charlie’s grandfather is surrounded by those he loves. In the process of mourning, Charlie is alone, with only pills to alleviate his pain. Who would call this progress?

Ellen Emry Heltzel is a Portland writer and book critic.

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