“Bowlaway”, by the hugely gifted novelist Elizabeth McCracken, is currently my Number l best novel of 2019 to date.
Part fairy tale, part realism, “Bowlaway” exists in a world so finely delineated and created, and walks such a fine line between various genres, that you’ll be astonished at how quickly it seduces you and moves you. Set in a Massachusetts town at the beginning of the twentieth century, in a town real and imagined and then imagined as real, Bertha Truitt appears seemingly out of the sky in the town cemetery, asleep, where she’s found by the Afro-Canadian doctor, Leviticus Sprague. You’ll no doubt roll your eyes a bit at this most peculiar beginning and wonder where McCracken is going with what may seem to be farce, or even slapstick. But she doesn’t go to either place.
Bertha, an early middle-aged woman who refuses to discuss her origins or where she comes from, has brought with her some bowling pins and is determined to open a bowling alley, the first of its kind, in this town, which will be open to both men and women; Bertha’s feminism is assumed from the beginning, although it’s not pounded on the reader’s head, and it’s very persuasive to many of the town’s residents, whom Bertha befriends with ease and eccentric charm. She also insists on hiring two of the town’s unusual men to work in the bowling alley, and the bond she develops with both of them (one of whom lives in an apartment she creates directly above the alley). is both moving and consistent with her character. Both men have what we’d now call special needs; Bertha is the first in this town to give these men dignity, jobs, identities: there are times when the reader will find her to be rather like an angel swooping down into this town, and times when she’s downright vexing. She will marry the nonwhite Dr. Sprague and they will have a daughter, whose nursemaid will reappear throughout the novel in differing roles and guises (that’s part of the fairy-tale-like quality of the novel). Bertha and Sprague build an octagonal house and lead what, at first, is a charmed life. The first section of the novel is the most like a fairy tale, but McCracken’s tone and voice change just enough to reground the characters in “real life”, where tragedy will hit; the author moves from the semi-myths all families share of their origins and then puts her characters back into the everyday; this change in mood and slight change of tone are rendered brilliantly.
Suffice it to say that a search eventually brings a man to town who claims to be a son from an earlier marriage to Bertha (we are coming down, now, from the fairy tale to the worlds of lawyers and the like). Since I so don’t want to spoil the plot for potential readers, other generations of Truitts and other townspeople whom we’ve met because of Bertha will appear and reappear; the upcoming industrial revolution will rear its head and affect the bowling alley in a number of ways and transformations; Bertha ‘s heirs will have children whose fates we’ll follow with fascination, and, ultimately, with a kind of reverent love which McCracken so very carefully creates through her narrative itself, through the foibles of her characters, the eccentricities of small town life, over all of which will hover the very spirit of Bertha and the strength of her character, her ideas, her (yes) entrepreneurialism and her feminism. The novel’s ultimately a family saga over several generations, but the author has created a kind of Shakespearean potion and dusted it both into her characters and into her readers, so that you’ll be both unable to put this novel down, and you’ll seriously grieve at the demise of certain characters and the seeming rebirth of others. I can’t remember reading a novel recently where the writer has walked such a fine line nearly into the absurd, but never into it, and into difficult family scenarios and eccentricities. McCracken is like Anne Tyler but without the extremities of her characters’ sometimes excessive quirks; the novel is full of aphorisms, bits of wisdom that shock and startle as you read them.
I can’t remember reading any novel quite like “Bowlaway” in my many years of reading fiction; it has a sweetness and a douceur and a tristesse all combined into a kind of magic, and I hope readers of fiction will race to buy this enchanting and enchanted novel.