BOWLAWAY, by Elizabeth McCracken. Ecco, 371 pp., $27.99.
For those who might wonder if "Bowlaway," Elizabeth McCracken's first novel in 20 years, is really about bowling — the answer is yes.
"Our subject is love because our subject is bowling," announces the narrator early on. Later, the attractions of the game are explained: people need cheap entertainment and conversation; they need to "visit some minor violence upon inanimate objects." So much excellent writing about and so many wonderful claims for bowling appear in the book that one would not be surprised if its publication produces a spike in alley revenues.
The central character of "Bowlaway," the shared ancestor of several generations of characters, is Bertha Truitt, said to be the inventor of candlepin bowling, a variation played in New England with slim, straight pins and a ball the size of a "grapefruit, an operable tumor." On the other hand, it is possible that someone else invented the game first. "That doesn't matter. We all of us have invented things that others have beat us to: walking upright, a certain sort of sandwich involving avocado and an onion roll, a minty sweet cocktail, ourselves, romantic love, human life."
Tell me you didn't just read that sentence twice.
Reading Elizabeth McCracken — the gorgeously-put-together sentences parading the pages like models on a Paris runway; the crazy, original insights; the definitive, wholly fictional pronouncements — is like going on an automotive safari. Most of the attractions are by the side of the road, so there's not much hurry to move along. In fact, to continue with the animal metaphors, the novel is a shaggy dog story within a shaggy dog story within a shaggy dog story. I never felt all that invested in the plot, but I could not stop reading, either, just to see what the heck she would think of next.
Children? They are "preposterous foreigners" who "declared their love even before they spoke the language," each one combining two families like "a portmanteau, a mythical beast, a montage." Yoga? It's "laundry for muscles"; as if one were "steam cleaned and steam pressed and folded perfectly back into [one's] body's compartments." Secrets and dark thoughts? Don't worry, everyone needs them. They are "the lime in the mortar of your head. They [hold] up the good thoughts." Spiral staircases? Watch out. While "a staircase amplifies ill will…a spiral staircase tangles those feelings round."
And you may not have heard about the terrible influx of immigrant ghosts after the old dead in Europe were forced out by the new dead of World War II. Several encyclopedic paragraphs on the topic follow. "The ghosts of contortionists can fold themselves to handkerchiefs"; the "ghosts of children are enormous," and the very old "worn thin from use," while animals "are usually too small to be detected."
Over and over, McCracken combines actual wisdom with made-up malarkey, as in this thumbnail portrait of a Jewish grandmother in Florida: "Mostly she required that her granddaughters be shipped down for summer visits; they came back brown limbed and green haired, with souvenirs from obscure and troubling tourist traps: Zarkland, Murray's House of Snakes, Little Batavia."
So back to the story. I don't mean to say nothing happens. On the contrary, there is a molasses flood, a house fire, a murder, a lost will and many other catastrophes that befall three generations of kooky and romantically entangled characters, some of whom remain unaware of their true genealogical connection. And there's an unexpectedly sweet feeling of sorrowful closure when it all winds up. Still, I was in it for the ride, not the destination.