Book Review: Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken

Bowling is something sacred in Elizabeth McCracken’s multigenerational novel

<i>Bowlaway</i> by Elizabeth McCracken

A wise podcast once told me, "A cure-all cures nothing," and though the original context was strictly medical, I can't say I didn't bring a touch of that skepticism to the table while approaching the concept of bowling as balm in Elizabeth's McCracken's newest novel.

Bowlaway, which is not the original but the eventual title of the candlepin bowling alley at the heart of this multigenerational tale, refers to the promise that more than a few of its characters hold in their hearts: If you give your all to the game, you can bowl away sorrow, time, loneliness, and all manner of other ills.

The progenitor of that belief is the peculiar and enthralling Bertha Truitt, who, at the top of the novel, appears seemingly out of thin air, unconscious in a frost-covered Massachusetts cemetery at the turn of the 20th century. Claiming to have invented candlepin bowling – a New England variant with a smaller ball and pins that are, well, candle-shaped – and disavowing her past (whatever that may be), Bertha sets out to build the small town's first bowling alley. In short order, she befriends her hospital companions, marries the black doctor who found her in the cemetery, and gains a following of women previously without any athletic outlet.

So charismatic is this split-skirt protagonist that you might imagine Bowlaway would be her story alone, but McCracken is more ambitious and egalitarian. Like a rolling stone gathering moss, Bowlaway snatches up every individual that finds joy or tragedy in proximity to the bowling alley and allows them to be observed tenderly and precisely. We follow Bertha's family and employees for decades after her death, as they oscillate between embracing and disentangling themselves from the bowling alley, the site of so many victories and losses. Under the gaze of McCracken's narrator (whose wistful omniscience has a certain kinship to Our Town's Stage Manager), every life feels both plain-faced and extraordinary, with an undercurrent of yearning that leaves you with a pleasant ache at the back of your throat.

Some loves can be evangelized – the television show you watch after the ninth heartfelt entreaty from a friend that, the minute you watch it, you can't believe you put it off so long – and others caught – watching a person you love bend over a page with such intense focus that you're halfway out the door to the bookstore already to get some of what they're having. McCracken's love of language is the catching kind. You get the sense there's no exquisite turn of phrase she'd turn down, if it occurred to her. Might that lead to belaboring the point, in another sort of book? Sure, but in Bowlaway, the journey through McCracken's lush, piercing prose is the destination.

McCracken will read from and sign copies of Bowlaway Mon., Feb 4, 7pm, at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar. More info:


by Elizabeth McCracken
Ecco, 384 pp., $27.99

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