I thought I knew the sprawling family saga — intimate domestic dramas smacked against vast historical backdrops, generations spanned in the race toward modernity. Then I met Bowlaway.
Elizabeth McCracken holds a funhouse mirror up to the Great American Novel. Whimsy and weirdness spark at Bowlaway’s edges. Bodies and personalities appear misshapen, off, funny, or damaged. (“He was minuscule but had an enormous and lopsided head.”) Not even the most poignant character deaths escape their creator’s carnival of eccentricity, each demise contributing to the Bowlaway lore: Burned to ash while sitting in peace, the chair “incinerated,” the smell “appalling.” Left to rot in the wreckage of the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. Beaten to death in a candlepin bowling alley.
And what better place to stage a bizarro American epic than a candlepin bowling alley? Bowlaway covers nearly 100 years, beginning at the turn of the twentieth century. Lying on a patch of dead grass, a “jowly, bosomy, bottomy, odd” mystery matron wakes up in a Massachusetts cemetery, eyes ticking then blinking as if she’d just fallen out of the sky. She’s found by an orphaned teenage boy with “a troubled gait” and a handsome black doctor with a drinking problem. She introduces herself as Bertha Truitt. She tells them that she’s going to build an alley — one that’ll soon emerge as a staple of this small town called Salford. She’ll name it “Truitt’s.” She claims she’s inventing candlepin bowling. Both men are certain she’s either lying or deluded, even if she comes armed with 15 pounds of gold.
McCracken’s clever narrator says in the first chapter, “Our subject is love because our subject is bowling” — two motifs that, by the end of this novel, feel inseparable, entwined. (Also, utterly New England: Candlepin is “a game of purity for former puritans.”) The majority of Bowlaway takes place at Truitt’s. Bertha invites women to bowl — “Let ‘em gawk,” she says of leering men — drawing in a horde of lost souls trapped in time, like LuEtta Mood, a beautiful young housewife grieving the death of a child. These women find solace at the alley alongside its manager, Joe Wear, the boy who found Bertha at the graveyard before she tapped him to run the place, and its pinsetter, Jeptha Arrison, a dopey sad-sack Bertha met in the local hospital. (He’d taken too much aspirin.) McCracken (The Giant’s House) describes Truitt’s as Bertha watches the structure come to life: the six lanes, the warehouse-high ceilings, the cellar holding a secret safe, the second-story apartment which Joe Wear will call home.
McCracken’s first novel in 18 years, Bowlaway attracts those who buck convention — Bertha chief among them, bicycling around Salford in divided skirts and waistcoats, utterly disengaged with her era’s feminine norms. (“She was, really, a Victorian.”) To the townspeople she is a mesmerizing enigma. Bertha addresses her neighbors by their full names — enhancing the novel’s mythic New England vibe — and appears in their dreams, inspiring gossip that evolves into legend. “They all knew the story of her arrival in the cemetery,” the narrator says. “Mary said she’d heard she’d been found with the body of her dead child, and that candlepin bowling was the peculiar way she’d gone mad with grief.” It’s as if Bertha existed only from the day she woke up in Salford. She fell in love and got married — to the aforementioned black doctor, Leviticus Sprague. She built a house — an octogonal monstrosity. She ran a business. She gave birth to a daughter.
Less than halfway through Bowlaway, Bertha dies in a freak accident so wonderfully wild it does her spirit proud. (God, can McCracken write a death scene.) The novel gets bigger, better, stranger. As Bowlaway moves through tremendous social change, McCracken develops her characters with remarkable depth. Her sense of detail is precise but comprehensive. She manages to profoundly describe Joe Wear as an elbow — “Useful, unseen, in service to others. Still he might rub up against something meaningful” — and beautifully captures Hazel, another of Truitt’s female regulars, in a single sentence: “If you asked her how to make a cheese soufflé she would tell you about the rivers of blood running down the gutters of Paris during the French Revolution, as though you should be able to divine a recipe from that.” McCracken toys with foreshadowing, too, teasing characters’ fates hundreds of pages before they play out. Her prose exudes a mystical, nostalgic menace.
Bowlaway derives tension from pain. As with Bertha, the past lives of Joe, Jeptha, LuEtta, and the rest are cloudy, traumatic. We wonder: What are these people carrying? What don’t they want us to see? When a key to Bertha’s past — Nahum, purporting to be (but very obviously not) her son — shows up to take over the alley, he’s initially presented as a sexist con-man, banning women and greedily hunting for gold. He’s a caricature — a villain, even. But then, out of nowhere, McCracken unveils his true identity — and, by extension, Bertha’s former life — in a passage of quiet, revelatory, empathic power, allowing us to see this man’s tattered hopes, his broken heart, his hatred’s roots. “Years later he would die with these truths upon his lips,” McCracken writes. “He loved everyone he had ever loved.”
Truitt’s changes hands a few more times, and all those who lived in Bertha’s orbit find themselves, in one way or another, drawn back to bowling, to the alley, to the love that bloomed there. The novel’s climax is engineered by Nahum’s two sons, who continue on that path, yet at its conclusion, Bowlaway reveals its true heart: Joe Wear, Bertha’s kindred spirit, a queer drifter without a clue as to how to live as himself in the world.
This is McCracken’s masterpiece, a story of reinvention: that most American of themes, the promise that’s guided a country through depressions, wars, tragedies, betrayals. The author has reframed the family saga for the misfit: that truest American character. After twisting her plot with one last — what else? — bombshell family secret, McCracken dedicates the sweeping final chapter to Joe. She chronicles his own rebirth, tracing the improbable, extraordinary later decades of his life. It is rousing. “We all fall out of the sky,” Bowlaway’s narrator concludes. “That’s where we come from.” A