In Bowlaway, her first novel in 18 years, Elizabeth McCracken marries the everyday with the otherworldly. Her electrifying voice brings to life a cast of bizarre characters who lean on, help and flee one another as they question their place in the world. The answer, in various ways and to various ends, is a bowling alley.
Bertha Truitt arrives in the small town of Salford with a large sum of gold and everything she needs for a game of candlepin bowling. She is found unconscious in the cemetery by Joe Wear and Dr. Leviticus Sprague, who become the manager-of-sorts of her bowling alley and her husband, respectively. The alley opens soon after her mysterious arrival in town, and not long after that she begins building the octagonal home in which she, her husband and their unexpected daughter live. Bertha fends off questions about her past and her identity, however, refusing to tell anyone how she ended up in the cemetery. Even her age is a secret.
This secrecy causes issues when Bertha dies in 1919 and the alley’s ownership is contested by a man claiming to be Bertha’s son. Meanwhile, the many outcasts who have found community at the alley struggle to survive in a world without Bertha, who had become a center of gravity in the town.
McCracken has described Bowlaway as a genealogy, but given the number of orphans and unknowns in the book, it’s not a genealogy in the strictest sense. Instead, it’s a genealogy of the people who make Truitt Alleys home, a place to which they’re all drawn and from which they’re all repelled by love and loss. Spanning a century, the novel follows characters like LuEtta Mood, a champion candlepin bowler who is banned from the alley by Truitt’s “son,” and Jeptha Arrison, a pinboy who is believed to be simple but in fact possesses near supernatural understanding. Like Arch and Roy Truitt, the children of Bertha’s first husband, and Margaret, the hired girl who helps deliver Bertha’s own daughter. These disparate lives intersect with Bertha and the bowling alley, but it’s never clear whether this is a blessing or a curse.
The fundamental loneliness that defines these characters, who all keep something of themselves deeply private, creates a sense of magic around marriages, divorces, births and deaths. Their interwoven stories are by turns heartbreaking and beautiful, defined by, as McCracken writes in the first chapter, love. At the heart of it all is a bowling alley and the strange woman who built something that touched lives for generations.
Reading like a tale told secondhand from Salford’s best storyteller—wise in the historical and fantastical details—Bowlaway is an epic of the wins and losses that make up the average life.
Bridey Heing is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.