BookPage starred review, February 2019
To tell a good tale, you need drama—and in this area, Bowlaway spares no expense. A turn-of-the-20th-century candlepin bowling alley works its way into people’s lives and under their skin in Elizabeth McCracken’s sixth book.
After she seems to materialize in a cemetery in Salford, Massachusetts, Bertha Truitt opens Truitt’s Alleys (later rechristened Bowlaway), which takes on a life as mysterious as her own. Bertha’s oddities are numerous: bicycling in a split skirt, building an octagonal house named Superba high on a hill, marrying a black doctor named Leviticus Sprague and then letting women bowl in full view of spectators. The whole being of Bertha scandalizes and perplexes. When Bertha is struck down in a bewildering accident that evokes (for this reader, anyhow) a scene from the fantastic but short-lived sitcom “Pushing Daisies,” her death sets the lives of those in her orbit spinning.
“Our subject is love because our subject is bowling,” McCracken’s narrator opines early in the novel. The love in Bowlaway takes many forms: love of a spouse, love of a child, love of self and love of a capricious game. People love the alleys; they hate the alleys; they keep coming back to the alleys. Bowlaway forms the linchpin in the lives of an eccentric cast, from Bertha’s disconsolate widower to Joe Wear, the young watchman who first found Bertha in the cemetery. Joe becomes manager before an unexplained disappearance, but his fate is intertwined with Bertha’s and the bowling alley, no matter how long he stays away from the lanes.
In Bowlaway, McCracken’s prose is well-tooled, hilarious and tender, thoughtful and jocular. Her characters inhabit their world so completely, so bodily, that they could’ve truly existed. Her detailed observations make the bizarre seem plausible, and always enjoyable.