“Bowlaway” begins with a body in a cemetery: a mysterious woman wearing a divided skirt, a small bowling ball and bowling pin in her bag. It is 1900. And the body is alive.
Her name is Bertha Truitt. No one knows where she came from or how she got to the Salford, Mass., cemetery, and she doesn’t say, but she brings with her the shock of life. It is felt by Joe Wear, the watchman who finds her, who “couldn’t shake the alarm he’d felt upon seeing her in the morning frost, the pleasure when she’d opened her eyes. She had been brought back from the dead. Her nose was now florid with life, her little teeth loosely strung.” It’s felt by the doctor who happens by the cemetery, a black man from the Canadian Maritimes, when he feels her pulse, waking her from a Sleeping Beauty-like sleep.
“‘But what were you doing here?’ Dr. Leviticus Sprague asked her.
“Poor man. She admired how their hands looked folded together. ‘Darling sir,’ she said. ‘I was dreaming of love.’”
With her energy, her empathy, her flamboyance, her demands and her love, Bertha creates a devoted family. There’s Joe Wear, a man with a limp and no prospects who loves men rather than women; Dr. Sprague, a scholar, poet and medical doctor in a land that does not value those accomplishments in a black man; and another oddity, Jeptha Arrison, a patient in the hospital where Bertha is taken to recuperate, a man considered mentally deficient, who curls up at the end of her hospital bed to be near her. Dr. Sprague winds up marrying her, Joe Wear manages the candlepin bowling alley she opens and Jeptha Arrison becomes its all-important pinbody. He scrambles onto the lanes to set up the tall, narrow pins in precise constellations, preparing them to be knocked down, again and again.
Candlepin bowling, Bertha’s passion, is a game played in New England and the Maritimes, and it serves as the novel’s unlikely, crashing, arrhythmic leitmotif.
“Our subject is love because our subject is bowling. Candlepin bowling. … Nobody has ever bowled a perfect string. … Nobody, in other words, may look upon the face of God. … Our subject is love. Unrequited love, you might think, the heedless headstrong ball that hurtles nearsighted down the alley. It has to get close before it can pick out which pin it loves the most. … Then I love you! Then blammo.”
Like a pinbody, Elizabeth McCracken steadies her constellation of characters, and readers watch as fate rolls their way, knocking them sideways, sending them flying into the gutters or skimming past them, missing them altogether. There are whimsical births, as when Bertha goes into labor while she’s stuck in a doorway at the top of a spiral staircase. (“Mother of God!” the young maid cries. “Shall I get the lard?”) There are whimsical deaths (spontaneous combustion, a flood of molasses, a block of granite roaring down a hill, smashing a woman into a tobacconist’s wooden Indian).
Generations pass. Characters disappear to reinvent themselves or ruin themselves. In the bowling alley, there are births and deaths and betrayals, there are con men and men searching for ghosts, rebellious women and powerful women and women with babies strapped to their backs. There is love so powerful it destroys its victims. And there is grief. Leviticus is so distraught at Bertha’s death that he moves into the bowling alley, sleeping on Bertha’s lane, attempting to drink himself into oblivion. His sister writes to him: “Now you will find out how sorrow shapes a life.”
“But sorrow doesn’t shape your life. It knocks the shape out. It severs, it unstuffs, it dissolves. It explodes.”
“An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination,” McCracken’s exquisite 2008 memoir about her stillborn child, was a chronicle of shattered joy and expectation. The collection of short stories she published in 2014, “Thunderstruck,” was also sharply focused on loss, all kinds of loss, and the spaces it leaves behind. Always, though, shining through the carefully, beautifully painted grays, is the clarity of McCracken’s humor, bright and invigorating, like flickers of sunlight. Humor illuminates her work, revealing things clearly that we might have overlooked.
McCracken refuses to distinguish between the absurdity of comedy and the absurdity of tragedy. Her first novel, “The Giant’s House,” was a seamless expression of that comic/tragic vision. “Bowlaway” (her third novel, and first in 18 years) is jumpier, twitchier, a big book that veers in and out of the lives of its idiosyncratic characters, creating what McCracken calls a “genealogy,” occasionally verging, in its bric-a-brac of historical oddball detail, on the precious. But McCracken’s ironic perspective, her humor and her deeply humane imagination never desert her.
After Bertha’s death, Leviticus wants to create a monument to her, a doll that Joe Wear will carve out of bowling pins.
“… No such thing as life-size: you’d always be fractionally off, and the difference would be heartbreaking.
“He drew a shape in the air. ‘Yea high,’ he said. ‘Yea wide.’
“‘Smaller,’ said Leviticus. ‘Has to be.’”
The doll can never fill the exact space of the person it represents; the doll has to be smaller because Bertha’s life was so big, because all life is so big. Even so, the Bertha doll has a life of its own in the novel, a work of art that is ignored, loved, mocked and admired, that disappears and reappears, worn and decrepit and important. The Bertha doll haunts the bowling alley, and the people there, like a dream — realistic but not real, not alive but not dead, either.
Some of the novel’s characters believe in ghosts, or try to. After Leviticus Sprague’s death, the people of Salford dream about the doctor and even experience ghostly visitations. One woman, who had a miscarriage years ago, dreams that Dr. Sprague tells her she is pregnant. On waking up, she does the math and realizes she is. “Not sorcery. Not a miracle. As with most unbelievable things, it was mere and shocking biology.”
In “Bowlaway,” death and love and dreams live together, squabbling, soothing, holding hands, full of resentment, affection and confusion, like members of a large, spirited, extended family. The novel is an extended-family saga, a history of New England’s candlepin bowling, a burlesque chronicle of American oddballs, a contemplation of the role of the artist, a comedy of accidental deaths, a tragedy of accidental lives and a fairy tale, fractured and fanciful and dark.
“Once upon a time, happily ever after,” McCracken writes toward the end, “was never seen again. Such things are only true in the storybook world, not ours. Once upon a time there was a little girl — no, there have been millions of little girls, at all times. They lived happily ever after — but after the disaster, your happiness is always shadowed by the closeness of your escape. Never seen again — you can’t stop seeing the dead wolf opened like luggage on the bed, his turned-out stomach embossed with the pattern of your grandmother’s lace bonnet, his intestines perforated by her kicking heels. The dead are seen over and over, and most of the living.”
Or, as one character, caught in a ridiculous, compromising situation, says to the shocked woman who discovers him: “Lady, lady. All sorts of things happen in this world. This is only one of them.”