Eccentricity charms in 'Bowlaway'

Elizabeth McCracken's first novel in almost two decades is a quirky delight. 

Bowlaway, by Elizabeth McCracken, Ecco, 373 pp.

A body is found in a cemetery. That might not sound unusual, but this body is alive. Bertha Truitt is actually teeming with life, as the folks of Salford, Mass., discover when the middle-aged woman is found near an “obelisk that marked several generations of Pickersgills” with a Gladstone bag containing “one abandoned corset, one small bowling ball, one slender candlepin, and, under a false bottom, 15 pounds of gold.”

So begins National Book Award nominee Elizabeth McCracken’s first novel in nearly two decades, Bowlaway. The boisterous story combines a love of New England history with an eye for the eccentric to create a tragicomic tale that spans 100 years of a family and its bowling alley. “Our subject is love because our subject is bowling,” writes McCracken, and she isn’t kidding.

That’s candlepin, mind – the New England variant that, to date, has never seen anyone score a perfect game. “A game of purity for former puritans,” writes McCracken, who has written essays about having won the “Most Conscientious” award as a child from her bowling league. (Or actually, thanks to a wonderful typo, “Most Consciences.”) 

“Tenpin is a game of brute force and pure slapstick. Candlepin is full of heartbreak and poetry and luck. The pins dance and dodge. Sometimes they fall over when you least expect it. Sometimes they persevere,” she writes of the game that has existed in some form since ancient Egypt. “Even now New Englanders will say, of candlepin, Oh, you mean real bowling.”

“Bowlaway” is full of heartbreak, poetry, luck – and a fair bit of slapstick. Bertha Truitt bowls and lives with such gusto that her new neighbors mistake her for a vampire, succubus, or the Salford Devil (a local superstition). “What she wanted was a kind of greatness that women were not allowed. If they were allowed a small measure of it, they had to forsake love. She forsook nothing.”

Bertha knocks aside all cultural norms – from running her own sporting business to refusing to put up a modesty curtain to hide the women bowlers from gawkers. (Let ’em look, is her attitude.) She marries Leviticus Sprague, the black doctor who treated her in the cemetery, and they have a child.

In addition to her family, Bertha collects orphans, oddballs, and outcasts, and so does the novel. And sometimes it seems that, despite genuine affection, neither she nor the novel quite know what to do with them all. And while Bertha herself might offer a haven, this particular bowling alley is far more dangerous than a hockey rink. Characters spontaneously combust or are murdered in the lanes. The novel swings from violence to hilarity and then back again, as if it were on hinges.

For her part, Bertha refuses to answer any question about her past, telling one character, “You’re an orphan, Joe, aren’t you?... Well, I was orphaned from myself.”

The novel pauses to consider the poetry and pain of that particular sentiment, but McCracken has so many elegantly devastating phrases they barely fit in the novel, let alone a review: “the merriment was trained on a trellis of sorrow,” she writes. At its best, “Bowlaway” achieves that effect, but a few tendrils are left unanchored.

One woman’s hug is dubbed “a powdered milk embrace, something like actual love but reconstituted from a packet.”

McCracken’s ear for New England history includes everything from the Great Molasses Flood of 1919 to the octagon houses once in vogue. Everything from the Harlem Renaissance to World War II to the advent of TV and technology that made pinsetters obsolete finds its way into the small-town tale. The Dickensian names – many of them wholly improbable – come from her grandfather’s genealogy book.

While Bertha owns it, the bowling alley represents freedom for people to live on their own terms, even in a judgmental small town. Later, it becomes a form of imprisonment. One bowler, LuEtta Mood, thinks of the alley in terms Virginia Woolf would have understood. “[P]erhaps women did not need a place to come together but to be alone. That’s what Truitt’s was to her: a thunderous place where she could think in peace.”

At times a love of quirkiness makes the story wobble, but its generous heart keeps “Bowlaway” spinning safely out of the gutter.

Yvonne Zipp is The Christian Science Monitor’s deputy editor for the Daily.

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