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BookBrowse Reviews Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken

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Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken X
Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2019, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Nov 2019, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Tomp
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A whimsical novel exploring the lives of the patrons and staff at a New England candlepin bowling alley in the early 1900s.

This exquisitely written saga centers around a small town candlepin bowling alley in Salford, Massachusetts. It is a generational story—or collection of stories—about the people whose lives are influenced by this town gathering place, beginning in the early 20th century and spanning 50 years.

The book opens with the mysterious appearance of Bertha Truitt, who is found asleep on the grounds of the Salford Cemetery. The watchman, Joe Wear, a teenager who is "uneasy among the living and not much better among the dead," discovers her, and is soon joined by Leviticus Sprague, an African-American doctor. Bertha's only belongings are "one abandoned corset, one small bowling ball, one slender candlepin, and under a false bottom, fifteen pounds of gold." She is taken to the hospital where she soon adopts—or is adopted by—another misfit, Jeptha Arrison, who is recovering from swallowing a bottle of Aspirin. While in the hospital together, Jeptha sleeps under Bertha's bed, and sets up her one pin at the end of the hallway so she can throw her ball and knock it down over and over again.

Bertha's past remains as mysterious as her appearance, but she soon enmeshes herself within the community when she decides to build a six-lane candlepin bowling alley. She hires Joe Wear to run it, and Jeptha is her loyal pin-setter. She even marries the doctor, Leviticus Sprague. Once built, Bertha holds all-day parties at the alley once a month—providing something for everyone: "in the morning, a party for children, then a ladies lunch, then a tea, cocktails, then (as the day began to unravel) a light supper, a frolic, a soiree, a carousal, a blowout, a dance, and as people began to drink themselves sober, a conversation, an optimistic repentance, a vow for greatness, love." Men, women, old, young, all are welcome to bowl or watch, to simply be a part of the place. In this way, it's a rich backdrop for Elizabeth McCracken's eccentric characters.

Bertha continues to dominate the first five chapters, creating the sense of a typical novel's trajectory. But after her death—as surprising an event as her appearance—the remainder of the novel shifts into what reads more like a collection of linked short stories following various town residents who knew Bertha and who frequent Truitt's Alleys. Time passes and characters age and change as they overlap and reappear in later tales, but each chapter is its own self-contained narrative. Because these later stories are complete in their own right, I felt that the disproportionate attention to Bertha in the beginning—only to have her fade away—was a weakness in the novel's structure.

McCracken's characters are distinctly odd, yet seem authentic in their strengths and flaws. For the most part, they are not particularly heroic or villainous, rather they are multi-layered and distinct. This is particularly true for one character named Margaret Vanetten Truitt, who appears in many of the stories. Her arc is full of transformations, largely related to the shifts in her relationships. She is seen as an abandoned child, a nanny, mother, manager, mother-in-law, grandmother and patient. While working for Leviticus Sprague as a nanny, she seems timid and flighty, yet she's a strong independent woman in the eyes of her husband. Her two sons each have a very different relationship with her, because she's viciously controlling with one, and completely indulgent with the other. The stories suggest that no one fully knows anyone else. In fact, Margaret is not even sure she knows herself: "Her soul was a goldfish, a little thing inside the bowl of her body. She always had to concentrate to find it before she said her prayers."

McCracken's writing is evocative and whimsical. The omniscient narrative tone is somewhat distant and reflective, and yet the details chosen are wonderfully specific and surprising. The insights into each individual character, as well as the bowling alley and town as a whole, provide ample opportunity for reflection. Serious topics such as depression, substance abuse, infidelity and prejudice relating to both race and sexual orientation are explored against a historical backdrop. The differing points of view allow for varied interpretations of the same issue. Learning each characters' secrets, which are often never revealed to other characters, creates an intimate feeling for the reader. McCracken's lush and original writing is the novel's greatest strength, and will appeal to readers willing to while away time hanging out in a local gathering spot. Those looking for a traditional plot may be left wanting more.

Despite the bowling alley setting, the stories are rarely focused on the actual sport. One story is centered on a woman bowler, LuEetta Mood, who is competing against a hustler in an attempt to earn the right for all women to bowl during a time of misogynistic alley management. Another character, reluctant alley owner "Laughing Arch Truitt," is a successful bowler, yet feels as though his talent is more of a curse than a blessing. Mostly, these are stories of relationships: of friendship, marriage, family and neighbors. Making one of her typically unusual associations, the narrator explains, "Our subject is love because our subject is bowling…Unrequited love, you might think, the heedless headstrong ball that hurtles nearsighted down the alley. It has to get close before it can pick out which pin it loves the most…"

Wholly original in style, with moments of both humor and melancholy, Bowlaway is sure to evoke a range of emotions and reactions in thoughtful readers.

Reviewed by Sarah Tomp

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in February 2019, and has been updated for the November 2019 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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