Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Review: BOWLAWAY by Elizabeth McCracken

I reviewed Bowlaway (Ecco Books) by Austin's Elizabeth McCracken for Lone Star Literary Life. This long-awaited novel is all we hoped it would be. McCracken’s trademark sharp but indulgent wit is a style as distinctive as Stevie Ray Vaughn’s guitar.

LITERARY FICTION
Elizabeth McCracken
Bowlaway: A Novel 
Ecco
Hardcover, 978-0-0628-6285-3 (also available as an e-book and an audiobook), 384 pgs., $27.99
February 5, 2019

“They found a body in the Salford Cemetery, but aboveground and alive.” Thus is the hook set. Bertha Truitt appears to have dropped from the sky—there are no footprints in the frosty ground around her—with nothing but the clothes on her back and a Gladstone bag with an odd inventory: “one abandoned corset, one small bowling ball, one slender candlepin, and, under a false bottom, fifteen pounds of gold.” This is how one properly sets up a mystery in two paragraphs.

Bertha is transported to a hospital where “it could not be determined whether she had amnesia or a privacy so pigheaded it might yet prove fatal.” Each time she’s asked where she came from, she replies, “I’m here now.” Bertha decides to remain in Salford, marrying a local doctor, building a bowling alley, and generally upending convention. Then her untimely death sets in motion a series of unlikely appearances and dubious claims, her influence continuing to reverberate through the years.

Bowlaway: A Novel, the sixth book from Austin’s Elizabeth McCracken, is literary historical fiction beginning early in the twentieth century and spanning the next eight decades, during which we follow the fates and fortunes of the eccentric characters whose lives are affected, for good and for ill, by the appearance—and recurring reappearances, usually in memory, occasionally in effigy—of Bertha Truitt and candlepin bowling.

Related by an omniscient, no-nonsense narrator, with an assist from a sly Greek chorus addressing the reader like an aside delivered to the camera (“the January sunlight cut through the eight windows of the cupola—no, let’s be honest, only four, that’s as much as is mathematically possible”), Bowlaway showcases McCracken’s trademark sharp but indulgent wit, a style as distinctive as Stevie Ray Vaughn’s guitar.

The pace is quick and even, the sociology and history of bowling alley development unexpectedly interesting. Narrative flow is interrupted in a couple of places, one of which is a meandering episode involving the making of an effigy of Bertha, the other about a ghost hunter, whose purpose in the story is unclear. Happily, well placed plot twists persist to an oddly satisfying end, allowing a little of the original mystery to linger.

Chuckle-aloud dialogue abounds—“Men fail to speak their minds when women are around, for fear of contradiction. That woman there looks especial contradictory.”—as do marvelous juxtapositions—“Bodily [Bertha] was a matron, jowly, bosomy, bottomy, odd. At heart she was a gamine.”

McCracken’s facility with the delicate yet robust detail that gets at the nature of a thing so that you pause with recognition is a joy. This is true in instances small, such as Bertha speaking in a “papercut tone” and “accordion cats that got longer when you picked it up by the middle;” and instances revelatory, as when McCracken writes of how “…people, women especially, are leery of mothers of dead children, or too gentle around them. The bereaved mother is a combustible gas, [another’s] baby is a match…” McCracken’s personal experience of losing a child rings through her prose, producing an acknowledging, appreciative flinch in this reader.

I was immediately immersed in and charmed by Bowlaway, as I was by McCracken’s The Giant’s House many years ago. I am reminded of the cleverness of Much Ado About Nothing, the slapstick of Lucille Ball, and the domestic quirks of Anne Tyler’s Baltimore, all in the service of exploring absence, the value judgments we make based on appearance, the many varieties of love, the peculiarly American knack for reinventing ourselves, our selfish ability to justify our desires, and also our generosity in deciding to be for others what they need.

This is not an easy combination to pull off, but McCracken accomplishes it admirably and beautifully, with aplomb.

Originally published in Lone Star Literary Life.

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