Calamities and Candlepins: Elizabeth McCracken’s Bowlaway

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Elizabeth McCracken
(HarperCollins, 2019, $27.99, 384 pp.)

It is a sign of the imagination and quality of Elizabeth McCracken’s new novel, Bowlaway, that after reading it one finds oneself spontaneously researching the history of bowling. Halfway through an article about how, in medieval Germany, the sport was a religious ritual representing the toppling of sin and paganism (the pins) by Christianity (the ball), you’ll look up and realize where you are—probably a short drive from the nearest alley, should you wish to topple some pagans yourself. What could be a clearer indication of the novel’s magnetic, mind-occupying power?

Bowlaway opens in the late Victorian age, with the arrival of candlepin bowling—“A game of purity for former Puritans, a game of devotion that will always fail”—in the town of Salford, Massachusetts. Buxom and beaming Bertha Truitt is the stranger who brings the sport to town: when she greets her first Salfordians, she is holding a ball and candlepin “like a queen in an ancient painting, orb and scepter.” Like the Victorian novels the more bookish characters of Bertha’s generation are reading, Bowlaway features things like lost treasure and a disputed inheritance, but these function more as postmodern winks at the reader than as actual plot devices. The narrative momentum of the novel, in other words, is generated not by some great desire on the reader’s part to know where the Truitt gold is hidden, but rather by McCracken’s language, by her clever and economical use of non sequiturs to introduce new scenes or reflections, and by her evolving characters. After Bertha’s death, the novel follows two generations of her descendants as they make their home in her bowling alley and struggle with their relationship to their odd inheritance, with some trying to distance themselves from the alley, and others embracing it. Through it all, the question of whether personal loyalty or blood itself should take precedence persists: who is the true heir to the Bowlaway?

The novel is ruled by a fatalistic impulse: McCracken is generous in her sympathy for her characters, but she doesn’t spare them cruel fates; hers is a world over which accident reigns. Even happy mistakes are balanced by tragic ones: a devout Catholic and a con man can fall in love, but their son will be bludgeoned to death with a bowling ball; Bertha’s alley will be inherited, in the end, by the most deserving person, but he will be north of eighty years old when he finds out. A character perishes in Boston’s Great Molasses Flood of 1919, another is believed to have spontaneously combusted, yet another is crushed to death by a runaway stonemason’s cart. Throughout the novel, the “calamity of bowling”—McCracken’s marvelous term for it—is mirrored by the calamities of the world.

Through it all, the reader is driven forward by a desire to read more McCracken sentences, featuring metaphors so peculiar and correct they give you the feeling of having received an unexpected compliment: a voice as quiet “as a comb,” a building that rises “like a sock being knitted,” a man who has aged “in the way of furniture … all his padding shifted.” Describing a green tweed coat belonging to a particularly chic character, McCracken writes, “There was nothing about that coat that wasn’t magnificent. Its occupant looked like somebody who ate her dinner at midnight,” a depiction of glamour that ranks with Hemingway’s images of Brett Ashley, the girl as sleek as “the hull of a racing yacht,” in The Sun Also Rises. Though the structure and ethos of Bowlaway are fundamentally Dickensian, the writer whose prose McCracken’s most resembles is Nabokov: surely no writer since the progenitor of Humbert Humbert has used “nacreous” so well, has achieved such dense and dazzling inventiveness of language. The following passage, for example, is pure Nabokov:

The eyelashes of the dozing are always full of meaning and beauty, telegraph wires for dreams, and hers were no different. Dr. Sprague marveled at their furcoat loveliness.

As in Nabokov’s writing, the vocabulary here is outrageous (“furcoat”), the diction frilly yet correct. Also pleasantly Nabokovian are the pristine, playfully unmoored bits of poetry written by Bertha’s husband, Dr. Leviticus Sprague, which appear throughout the early chapters of the novel.

Bowlaway is further marked by occasional metafictional moments and sly asides to the reader (“What a thing, to marry into a family!”), some of which are more effective than others. It isn’t quite clear, for example, why McCracken feels the need to revise the number of windows on Superba, the hilariously named octagonal mansion Bertha builds for her family: “Now the January sunlight cut through the eight windows of the cupola—no, let’s be honest, only four, that’s as much as is mathematically possible”—it’s a moment that feels needlessly fussy. The language of the novel is not always perfectly successful: here and there are images that outstay their welcome, words and phrases that appear too often (“gentling,” the metaphor of being “cut into pieces like a pie”). But the revelatory moments far outweigh the misjudged ones.

As a character, Bertha Truitt is McCracken’s prose style incarnate: muscular, eccentric, and commanding. She is equal parts softhearted and hard-driving, an entrepreneur who longs for “a kind of greatness that women were not allowed.” She bobs above the novel like a parade float (after her death, her husband creates a Bertha effigy that resides in the bowling alley for several decades), yet there’s a kind of balloonish hollowness to her character. Her lack of backstory is part of her mythos, but it’s hard not to wish that she were onstage for longer—even in the form of other characters’ flashbacks or speculative histories. She is undoubtedly the novel’s prime mover, but mousy Margaret Vanetten, a housemaid who marries Bertha’s so-called son and becomes the family’s matriarch ascendant, is its best-developed character, at times contemptible and bigoted, at times nothing short of noble. She is both a conscientious wife and mother “[whose] body seemed to produce sandwiches without her knowledge” and an unimaginative provincial woman who is ignorant to the point of “stupid[ity].” There’s a terrific passage where Margaret, reflecting on the mystery of identity, claims not to know herself:

Orphaned, taken in. Alone, married. She did not know who she was. 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.

The reader, however, certainly knows her—body and soul. Interestingly, McCracken doesn’t provide a physical description of Margaret until about halfway through the novel, but when it appears it evokes a pleasant sense of recognition. “Her brown hair in its childish bowl cut, the way her hands clutched at each other, the printer’s ink purple of her clothing”: you realize that you knew what she looked like all along. She’s a wonderful creation, in a way more tangible and satisfying than Bertha herself.

Other characters are less satisfactory. Human beings, of course, need not always make sense (and in fact rarely do), but McCracken’s characters occasionally feel overburdened by their peculiarities, saddled by quirks and fixations that are never fully fleshed out or justified. In particular, Roy Truitt, one of Bertha’s ostensible grandsons, is a spinning compass of a character; from his obsession with his cousin Minna—and, later, with his brother Arch’s wife—to his misplaced pedantry, it’s never quite clear what’s driving him. Some of the confusion can perhaps be explained by the fact that Roy is an accidental man: he and his brother were never supposed to exist at all, only came into being because their father pretended to be Bertha’s son, and their mother (probably) pretended to believe him. Even the bowling alley itself doesn’t seem to want them; as children, both are injured in accidents involving rogue bowling balls. Perhaps they are the reason the novel slows a bit in its final third (although it picks up again when Margaret enters her fierce final decline).

As a whole, Bowlaway has a heroic, enchanted quality that suggests, in addition to its Victorian roots, a spiritual kinship with the novels of the Latin American magical realists (one thinks in particular of the family epics One Hundred Years of Solitude and The House of the Spirits)—though McCracken’s narrator embraces a firmly materialist view, interested in what Bertha terms “the natural and exhausting teeming world.” Despite the best efforts of various spirit-hunters and psychics, ghosts are never discovered in the alley, but the novel’s best moments are nevertheless the ones in which a kind of spirituality or sacredness shines through. One of its most beautiful descriptions is of Jeptha Arrison, a simple-minded pinsetter who loves the alley so much he often proclaims that he wants to die there. Jeptha is mistreated by Nahum Truitt and viewed as a buffoon by most of Salford, but at one point, McCracken grants the reader a moment in the perspective of his parents, two proud, elderly Yankees who frequently visit the alley to watch him work. “Only [they] saw,” McCracken writes, “in his fastidiousness with the pins, his exactitude and grace, a man recreating the world, ten pins at a time and ten frames a string, all day long till the lights went out. A man born for love.”

The affection that pervades this passage, and others, suggests that the novel can be understood, in one sense, as a love letter: to New England, to candlepin bowling, to the thin line between devotion and obsession, to the weird and splintery quality of family trees real and imagined. On display too are the dazzling force and originality of McCracken’s sentences, which make the novel supremely worth reading, despite its flaws. She sounds like Nabokov, but also like herself.