The central character in the novel is George Washington Crosby, who, at the beginning of the story, is lying on his deathbed with eight days left to live. George has Parkinson's disease and is dying of renal failure brought about by a cancer that began in his groin. As he lays dying, his family is keeping vigil - his wife, daughters Claire and Betsy, his sister Marjorie, and an assortment of "grown-up grandchildren." George had built the house in which they are all gathered; like his father before him, he is a tinker of sorts, skilled in a wide variety of areas. During his life, he had earned a Master's degree in education, had been a high school guidance counselor and had taught mechanical drawing and math. He had enjoyed going fly-fishing and playing poker, and had been a collector of pipes and a fixer of clocks. George had always been "a fastidiously neat dresser...his jackets and shirts were always well tailored, if not made from the best cloth or in the latest fashion." He was by nature a sensitive man, easily moved to tears. His difficult mother had lived with him and his family until the time of her death, and he had been solicitous to her, forgiving of "her contrary heart."

George had had a difficult childhood. His family had been poor, and his mother had been overburdened and bitter at being saddled with a husband and children she did not love. As the most dependable of his family's four children, George was expected to do the majority of the household chores and was given responsibility for the care of his brother Joe, who was two years younger, but had the mentality of a three-year-old. George, as an adult, is above all an ordinary man. He has a vague sense that the memories of his life are significant, but when he attempts to enumerate them and record them for posterity, he finds himself lacking.

Howard Aaron Crosby was George's father. He drove a wagon along the backroads of rural Maine for a living, selling sundries to the country women. Howard was a tinker, a jack-of-all-trades - "besides fixing pots and selling soap...some of the things Howard did at one time or another on his rounds...(included) deliver(ing) a baby...pull(ing) a rotten tooth...(and) sell(ing)...homemade whiskey for a backwoods bootlegger." Howard's heart was not in his job. He resented the lack of fulfillment he found in his labor; he was a lover of the natural world, and...

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