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Review: Bowlaway, by Elizabeth McCracken
Ecco, 2019. 373 pp. $28

Around the turn of the last century in Salford, Massachusetts — don’t bother to search your atlas — two men discover a woman lying aboveground in a cemetery. A bag beside her contains a corset, a small bowling ball, a candlepin, and fifteen pounds of gold bars. When Bertha Truitt wakes up (for she was asleep, not dead), she sets eyes on Dr. Leviticus Sprague, one of her discoverers, and decides to marry him. She hires the other, Joe Wear, for the candlepin bowling alley she opens.

No one knows how Bertha got there, where she was before, or who she is. But that doesn’t prevent the townsfolk from making myths about her, and not all are complimentary. Her marriage to Dr. Sprague, who’s African-American, causes tongues to wag, as does her bowling alley’s approach to the sport — all welcome, men and women together, which can hardly be ladylike. But the young women Bertha cultivates like it fine, and the alley and its owner become town icons.

A postcard, ca. 1910, of the Windsor Club candlepin lanes in Windsor, Vermont. The signs prohibit players from stepping or sliding into the lanes. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Bowlaway resists classification as a historical novel, except in the most inclusive sense, for few outside events intrude on the alley and its denizens, though common social attitudes do. I suspect that McCracken chose her time and place because that’s when candlepin was popular in New England, “a game of purity for former puritans.” But as she says in her acknowledgments, “This book is highly inaccurate, even for a novel.” And that’s what Bowlaway is, really, a kind-hearted, whimsical musing about the eccentricities that permit (but more often inhibit) love. The prose is literary, yes, but to engage the reader, not call attention to itself.

On principle, I dislike quirky. I must be one of the few readers of literary fiction who can’t abide Anne Tyler; putting up with her asylum of self-destructive masochists makes me feel as if I’m having a tooth drilled. Pass the Novocain, please. But Bowlaway needs no painkillers. Maybe it’s because the characters sense that they’re lost and therefore can’t take themselves too seriously or fool anyone else into doing so. They’re just trying to figure out which front to put up, an internal shell game that makes them more recognizable, for all their madness.
A narrative that depended on cutesy plot twists in which to display these weirdnesses would quickly wear thin.

McCracken goes the other way, relying on character through physical description. Her great gift here involves the expansion of consciousness to include perspectives that are unusual, to say the least. For instance, I’ve never read a paragraph about a child in utero who has the advantage over her mother, because, like a scientist, “she had known Bertha’s literal depths, had elbowed her organs and heard the racket of her various systems.” I have to laugh at that; I laughed often, reading Bowlaway.

How many books do you read in which the author can launch a perfect metaphor that’s equally funny and painful, like this: “Her relatives were doomed stocks in which she had better not invest, but she had come into love like a late inheritance.” Or descriptions that reveal an emotional atmosphere, so that a bowling alley becomes a character:

Nobody stands behind the wooden counter at the front — a large oak structure like a pulpit, with a spectacular cash register that looks ready to admit steam-powered music, a calliope of money. Nobody sits at the bar along the other wall, though the jar of pickled eggs glows like a fortune-teller. The tables and chairs in the middle of the room await lollygaggers. The ceilings are warehouse high, so that the eventual smoke coming off all those eventual people (cigarette, cigar, desire, effort) might be stored aloft.

To be sure, not everyone in this absurd candlepin universe pleases the heart or soul. Two important characters in particular are extremely irritating, whether because of selfishness like an art form, bad faith, or the sort of masochism that just isn’t funny or winning, no matter how you look at it. Maybe that’s the trouble with a novel that rests on good-heartedness; since the outliers don’t really belong, they test the boundaries of that place and, perhaps, the reader’s patience. Still, as a tale of a star-crossed family over several generations, with its legends, secrets, and resentments, Bowlaway will make you laugh and think.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.