Bertha Truitt, the woman who fell to earth in “Bowlaway,” Elizabeth McCracken’s superb new novel, whispers the enticement almost as soon as she arrives in the small Massachusetts town of Salford. Or maybe she doesn’t whisper it. Maybe the townspeople hear it in their dreams.
“I have a game for you. And, it is possible to bowl away trouble.”
Let’s be honest, reader. Bowling away trouble is not possible. Trouble is the direct result of existence. But this truth does not stop the memorable characters in “Bowlaway” from flinging themselves toward heartache, despair, danger and love like so many balls barreling down the alley.
Truitt, you see, is a devotee of candlepin bowling, a game of New England, “of purity for former puritans. A game of devotion that will always fail.”
The ball is small and fits snugly in your hand. The pins aren’t curvy but straight up and down and hard to knock over. No candlepin lover has ever bowled a perfect game because perfection is not achievable. Not on the lanes. Not in life.
But maybe trying is the point. Maybe the bowling alley Truitt opens signals hope. Maybe the society in and around the alley is a necessary refuge against the hardships of the early 20th century and beyond.
Like all of McCracken’s work, “Bowlaway” is sharp and funny and tragic. Following 100 years of change in an American town, it’s a story of loss and escape, inheritance and acceptance, love and betrayal and joy, women who dare to bowl and men who would stop them, killer molasses and possible spontaneous human combustion.
Truitt’s eventual departure from this world is hard to bear. She’s the most compelling character in a novel stuffed with them. But McCracken weaves Truitt’s spirit into almost every page, reminding us of the power of a legacy, even if it’s only for a few generations.
Author of two other novels, two story collections and the shattering memoir “An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination,” McCracken is a generous and gifted writer. (“The eyelashes of the dozing are always full of meaning and beauty, telegraph wires for dreams.”) She’s a master at contrasting comedy and tragedy, and “Bowlaway” crackles with her ironic wit.
She also gives us much to mourn: deaths, estrangements, secrets, progress. “Grief looks like nothing from the outside, it looks like surrender,” she writes, “but in fact it is the most terrible struggle.”
The only response? Hurl those balls as hard as you can as long as you’re here. You won’t get a perfect score. But at least you played the game.
Connie Ogle is a writer and book critic in Florida.
By: Elizabeth McCracken.
Publisher: Ecco, 371 pages, $27.99.