Bowlaway, Elizabeth McCracken’s first novel in 18 years, is a great American candy-colour Buddenbrooks, a multi-generational epic spanning almost 100 years and presenting the lives of a whole panoply of people. Swap the family with their grain business in Thomas Mann’s novel for the Truitts and their bowling alley in Salford, north of Boston, and you will have the stuff of McCracken’s rambunctious saga.
This isn’t ten-pin bowling however. It’s candlepin. The ball is smaller, ‘a grapefruit, an operable tumour’, just four and a half inches in diameter. The pins are no bigger than a hand and are, as might be expected, candle-shaped. The redoubtable matriarch of the family, Bertha Truitt, claims somewhat improbably to have invented the sport, but as the narrator generously points out: ‘We have all invented things that others have beat us to: walking upright, a certain sort of sandwich… a minty sweet cocktail, ourselves, romantic love, human life.’ Bertha Truitt is discovered at the start of the novel lying in the Salford cemetery, the bag beside her containing a bowling ball, candlepin and 15 pounds of gold in its false bottom. Within months she has built Truitt’s Alleys, a place where ‘bowling gave you something to think about besides your regrets’.
With its whimsy and wackiness, this is a funhouse of a novel. Even the most incidental of characters are granted glorious vignettes: a man, for instance, discovered handcuffed to a showerhead and wearing a woman’s girdle announces himself to be Professor Hackert, of Calculus. Professor Hackert, we are told, ‘like most people, could not quite sort out humiliation from pride’. Prospective lovers begin their courtship with mutual phrenological examinations; a memorial figure is constructed out of old candlepins. Someone spontaneously combusts; a ghostbuster arrives in town.