Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Wednesday, October 24, 2018: Maximum Shelf: Bowlaway

Ecco: Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken

Ecco: Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken

Ecco: Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken

Ecco: Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken


by Elizabeth McCracken

It can be hard, in a world with so very many books, to find something truly unique to write about. But Elizabeth McCracken (Thunderstruck, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination) has done just that in Bowlaway, a sweeping family saga centered on a bowling alley. And not just any old bowling alley, but a candlepin bowling alley, and not just any old story, but a love story. "Our subject is love," writes McCracken early in the novel, "because our subject is bowling. Candlepin bowling. This is New England, and even the violence is cunning and subtle."

This sets the tone for the rest of the tale, which is itself cunning and subtle, a carefully woven and darkly humorous account of one woman, Bertha Truitt, and the strange and lasting legacy of her fascinating and too-short life.

At the turn of the 20th century, in an imaginary New England town, Bertha Truitt arrives. She is not born--a woman like Bertha Truitt is, after all, too unusual to arrive in such a normal manner. No, she just arrives--fully formed and very much alive, on the cold cemetery ground, "as though she'd dropped from the sky."

Bertha's arrival sets off a chain of events as inexplicable as her appearance in the graveyard: she founds a candlepin bowling alley, claiming to have invented the sport. She appears in the dreams of her neighbors, whispering, "I have a game for you" and "it is possible to bowl away trouble." And, perhaps most importantly, she insists on allowing women to bowl in her alley, despite the protestations of the men in town.

"Well... I invented the game, so I suppose I make the rules," says Bertha to those who challenge her. And though it is unclear whether or not Bertha did, indeed, invent the game of candlepin bowling (or whether the truth of that fact matters), there is no doubt that she makes the rules: for her bowling alley, true, but also for her life. She is a woman who refuses to bend to expectations, instead crafting a life for herself out of what she wants. This is not to suggest that Bertha is perfect; on the contrary, she's incredibly flawed. She believes in phrenology and insists on living in an octagonal house and invents her own definitions for Latin words. She's only one of many perfectly imperfect characters scattered across the pages of Bowlaway, which starts with Bertha Truitt's extraordinary story and continues through generations of her family tree to nearly the present day.

As Bowlaway unfolds, the novel becomes many things: it is the story of an incredible and awesome woman and also the story of her legacy. It is the story of candlepin bowling, and the ways the sport mirrors life (or perhaps vice versa). It's a little bit whimsical and a little bit absurd and a little bit funny and a little bit sad. It is about grief and family and life and womanhood and the roles we play in our lives--whether we want to or not.

But it is also, as McCracken says in the pages of the novel, a genealogy. "Genealogy," she writes, "says that things happen in chronological order, but also all at once." And that's the genius of the structure of McCracken's novel: it is a genealogy, albeit a fictional one, that allows McCracken to slice through time, to weave a careful net of seemingly unrelated people who are inextricably tied to one another. That's what gives the novel the space to include so many disparate things (Phrenology! Dream walking! Bowling! Penpals! A wooden effigy! Spontaneous combustion! True love! False identities!) without feeling like a single thing, large or small, is out of place. They are each, as unrelated as they may seem, an integral part of the story of one family, starting with Bertha Truitt's appearance and descending through generations to a decrepit bowling alley that becomes the scene of a brutal murder.

"They hadn’t realized that bowling was so full of suspense. A story: our hero (the ball) sets out on his journey (the approach), travels the length of his world until he runs into trouble, acquits himself well or badly, end of chapter. Turn the page!"

Bowlaway hardly needs to contain a reminder to turn the page at the end of each chapter; it is a book that compels readers forward in time, as full of suspense as the sport around which it is centered. The only rein in that relentless forward progress are the stunning, beautiful sentences McCracken has packed cleverly into every paragraph, every page, every chapter--a delight to stumble upon, to pause and consider, and to read again and again. --Kerry McHugh

Ecco, $27.99, hardcover, 384p., 9780062862853, February 5, 2019

Ecco: Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken

Elizabeth McCracken: Love, Genealogy and Candlepin Bowling

photo: Edward Carey

Elizabeth McCracken is the author of two story collections (Thunderstruck and Here's Your Hat, What's Your Hurry?, being reissued in February 2019), a memoir (An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination) and three novels (including National Book Award finalist The Giant's House, and Bowlaway, coming from Ecco in February 2019). Originally from New England, McCracken now lives in Texas, where she teaches creative writing at University of Texas, Austin.

Let's start with candlepin bowling, which features heavily in Bowlaway. It's a rather unique topic on which to center a book.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say it's maybe the first novel about candlepin bowling. My nightmare is that I'll write a book and then it will turn out someone else had a similar idea, but I was pretty sure that there was a niche here that I could fill.

And I grew up on candlepin bowling leagues. I was terrible--terrible!--at it, but I really loved it. All of the New Englanders I know who candlepin bowl have this total perverse attachment to it. We like to say "Oh no, candlepin bowling is real bowling." In 10-pin bowling, the goal is perfection, and it's obtainable. There are people who bowl perfect games. But I love the fact that in candlepin bowling no one has ever done it.

Bowling threads through the entirety of the novel, along with the family line and legacy of Bertha Truitt. Could you talk about your take on this novel as a genealogy, an idea referenced in more than one place in the text itself?

My grandfather was actually a genealogist. He did all of the genealogy of his family--my family. I have those, written up; my aunt gave them to me when I got married.

I was reading these genealogies, and I was interested in how a story that would be boring about anybody else's family becomes interesting when it's connected to you. The genesis of this book actually had a lot more to do with genealogy than was in it eventually, but I really liked the idea of people being fascinated by who they are related to, even if it turns out they are entirely wrong about it. It's a narrative whose total plot is the netting. That's it. Everything is tied together, but it's only tied together because of offspring.

Bowlaway does pack in a lot of seemingly unrelated detail, without a thing feeling out of place.

There is more of that than usual here, especially compared to my last two novels, which also took place over a number of years. Those were both somewhat more organized, and they're both first-person narrators, so there's that sort of true line of somebody telling the story to you. This one is a little bit more all over the place. I always wanted to write about spontaneous combustion so, here it is! I'm putting it in! To a large extent, I wrote everything I wanted in the first draft. And then when I was working on the second draft, I had to figure out how to give it shape.

So it changed significantly from draft to draft?

It didn't change in feel. It didn't change in character. The drafting had to do more with looking at plot, and trying to figure out what was happening to the characters through the plot. I think that's always true for everything that I write. I try to get the material on the page, and then figure out why the characters are doing whatever it is they're doing.

There were many moments in the novel that explored the different ways that grief can shape a life. Was that something you set out to write about intentionally?

For whatever reason, it's one of those things I write about a ton. I don't know why it has always compelled me. I can't get away from it.

Every time I start something, I think, "This is going to be a really cheerful book. Nobody dies, and it's all hijinks and parties." And it never works out that way. When I started writing this book, I thought this was going to be the cheerful book. No dead children, and happy families... and yeah, it didn't work out that way so much.

"Cheerful" might not be the right word, but there were a lot of moments of humor in the story.

It is important to me that my work is funny in some way. It's just the way I process things. I teach fiction writing, and I always say to my students that the way you think about or process information about life is also how you write. And I think it would be impossible for me, at the worst moments of my life, to not make jokes. 

Bowlaway is also very much a novel about womanhood, and what it means to be seen as a woman--or not allowed to be seen.

It's something that's on the mind of the country, this question of what it has cost women to live in a world where they are not primary. Where women are pushed to the side. Where a woman who owned her own business at the turn of the century is the exception and not the norm.

When I'm writing, when I'm working on fiction, I'm never consciously thinking, "Oh, I want to write more about women and being put in positions of power and what it means to be a woman." I just think about the characters. But there's all the stuff that goes on in the back of my brain--when I'm reading news articles, talking to friends--and it's impossible to keep that stuff out of my fiction. My writing always betrays what I'm thinking about in day-to-day life, even if I'm not being overly conscious of the fact that I'm doing that.

You've written short stories, a memoir, novels. You also teach writing. Is your writing process the same, or different depending on form? Do you know what form you're setting out to write when you start?

My writing process has changed a lot over the years, although it's always clear to me if I'm writing a short story or a novel. Part of that is that if I'm working on a novel, I will put most things into it. Again, something happens, and I think, "Yeah, UFOs! UFOs can fit into this novel. I can do that." And with short stories, it's somehow more event-based. I know something happens, and I think, "Oh, that would make a good short story."

I have children, and having children changed my writing process more than anything else. I used to write for a few hours a day, but over a longer period of time. Now that I have children, I write whenever I have time. In that way it doesn't matter what it is I'm writing; it's true for novels and it's true for short stories. But it's changed a lot over time.

Because I teach young people, I always say to them, there are stories you can write now, when you're in your early 20s, that you won't be able to write when you're in your 40s. The way you think about the world is different. I always say you should write the story you're interested in when you're interested in it. Because you have access to things that you will lose access to when you get older.

It feels like the same could be said for readers.

That's completely true. I also think that one of the great follies of growing older is that just because you've changed, you think you've improved. It’s not that I think that I'm worse now; I'm just different. --Kerry McHugh

Powered by: Xtenit