‘Bowlaway’: Featured Fiction from Elizabeth McCracken

February 4, 2019 | 11 min read

For today’s fiction excerpt, we present a chapter from Elizabeth McCracken’s new novel Bowlaway, out tomorrow from Ecco. The title was featured in our Great First-Half 2019 Book Preview, with Edan Lepucki writing:

It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years since McCracken published her first novel, The Giant’s House, perhaps because, since then, she’s given us two brilliant short story collections and one of the most powerful memoirs in recent memory. Her fans will no doubt rejoice at the arrival of this second novel, which follows three generations of a family in a small New England town. Bowlaway refers to a candlestick bowling alley that Publishers Weekly, in its starred review, calls “almost a character, reflecting the vicissitudes of history that determine prosperity or its opposite.” In its own starred review, Kirkus praises McCracken’s “psychological acuity.”

The Bowling Alley Under Glass

Salford was a city hard north of Boston, with a sliver of coastline just big enough to ramshackle the houses and web the occasional foot. Like Rome, it had been built among seven hills; unlike Rome, it was a swampy place, a city of fens and bogs. Eventually the founders knocked over most of the hills, shoved them into the bogs, declared them to be squares, and named each for the former hill at its heart. Pinkham Hill became Pinkham Square; Baskertop Hill, Baskertop Square. As for the bogs, they were nameless, then gone.

Former bog dwellers were left to wander the municipality. Prosperous beavers in their beaver coats muscled around Gibbs Square, looking as though they meant to withdraw their funds from the local banks; nesting birds lamented the coarse new immigrants in their neighborhood, like them bipedal but unwilling or unable to fly. Frogs hopped like idle thoughts past the saloon. Sometimes they went in: you had to check your bucket of beer before you poured. Animals, flushed from Salford’s pockets, were everywhere. Perhaps the Salford Devil was only some Yankee platypus whose habitat had been replaced by the dime store.

A whole colony of little bogbirds had been ousted from the swamp that became Phillipine Square. In their place was a vaudeville house, a grocery store, and a trolley stop, though the whole demesne still smelled of bog: damp and up-to-no-good.

Here Bertha Truitt declared she would build her alley.

“I am at home in a bog,” she said. “A bog is a woman by its nature.”

“And hills?” asked Jeptha Arrison worriedly. Jeptha of the Hospital! He had a sack of a head, damp eyes an eely gray, and a face that altogether seemed something caught in aspic. He stood next to Bertha on the new sidewalk of Phillipine Square, though the road wasn’t yet paved, and looked down at his shoes, frilled at the edges with mud. “That’ll make me sick.”

“What will?”

“Filth,” he said. He asked again, “What’s a hill?”

“Also a woman. There is no part of the earth that isn’t. Yes,” Bertha Truitt repeated, “I am at home in a bog.”

Hire Irish to lay brick, a doctor had told her in the hospital, and now she believed it like a superstition. The Irish called her Truitt, which they made a single syllable, Troot, and so she was known by most people: not Bertha Truitt or Miz or Mrs., not The Truitt Woman, not Mrs. Sprague once her husband arrived. The lack of honorific was the honorific: Troot. Troot runs a good house.

It took her two months to build the bowling alley. Nobody had seen a building go up with such speed, brick by brick, like knitting a sock. Truitt walked through every day, a distracted but bemused look on her face, as though she were looking not for progress but for a particular person long missing, and was preparing her face for the joke: What took you so long or I knew you’d turn up eventually or Hello, you.

Two stories and a cellar to the Truitt House. Look through the glass windows at the front, like the historic dioramas at the Salford Public Library. The title of this diorama is the Bowling Alley at Dawn. Eggshell light outside; inside, murky workingman dark. No windows except at the front: neither the rising of the sun nor its inevitable setting matter here. Balls turn. The earth (being a woman) might or might not.

There are six lanes to bowl upon. The floors are built of rock maple. At the end of the lanes is a ledge—a high wooden bench that runs the length of the wall—for the pinboys to alight upon while the bowlers bowl. Once the bowling alley has opened for the day, the pinboys will sit on the ledge like judges, or vultures, but not yet. Between lanes are three elevated cast-iron tracks—the ball returns—so the pinboys can bowl the balls back to the bowlers. The Bowling Alley at Dawn is a tidy place. The pins have been set. Only one pale matchstick pin has fallen over in the first lane. Impossible to know whether this is the carelessness of the pinboy, or the artist who made this diorama.

Nobody watches or waits. Nobody stands behind the wooden counter at the front—a large oak structure like a pulpit, with a spectacular cash register that looks ready to emit steam-powered music, a calliope of money. Nobody sits at the bar along the other wall, though the jar of pickled eggs glows like a fortune-teller. The tables and chairs in the middle of the room await lollygaggers. The ceilings are warehouse high, so that the eventual smoke coming off all those eventual people (cigarette, cigar, desire, effort) might be stored aloft. Six fluted iron columns for support, three left, three right. In the corner the first of the coin-op entertainments, a standing sculptoscope. Drop in a penny, bend to the brass goggles—you might expect to see a stereoptical Niagara Falls or Taj Mahal, but in the Bowling Alley at Dawn you see instead the Bowling Alley at Dawn in further miniature, complete with diminutive sculptoscope with its minuscule stereoptical view of the Bowling Alley at Dawn.

Below, the cellar is divided into rooms for storage. It smells of bog. The only thing of note is a broad-shouldered cast-iron safe, painted with flowers and the name of its maker (EXCELSIOR SAFE & LOCK CO., SALFORD MASS.) in excruciatingly beautiful cursive.

Upstairs, above the alleys, storage rooms east and west, with an apartment in the middle. When the sun rises—if the sun ever rises in the Bowling Alley at Dawn—the light will fall through the immense sash windows at the back onto the good furniture: an Eastlake sofa, an enamel table with turned legs, an iron bed. Even this room feels like a storehouse, the domestic objects in it arranged like unused furniture, the bathtub near the kitchen sink, the stove near the front door, the toilet in one of the closets. At the front of the building, the staircase down to the alley’s foyer, every step white, every riser green.

“For you?” the Irish foreman had asked Truitt, when shown the plans for the apartment. She had sketched them on what seemed to be the grease-stained wrapper of a sandwich; her governing aesthetic was symmetry. The foreman was embarrassed by how protective of her he felt, to own this emotion for which Truitt would have nothing but contempt: I do not need protection, Mr. Dockery, I look after myself.

“For pity’s sake,” she said. “No. It wouldn’t suit me at all. I plan to install a man.”

She’d found her man already, of course: Joe Wear, late of the cemetery. She had known from the moment she’d met him that he was a bowler to his very soul. He had that knack for pointless devotion; his body was built on bowling angles.

He’d visited her once in the hospital, had told her, “I won’t pinset. I pinset at Les Miserables. I could manage a house.” She turned to him with a gleaming expression, bright and greedy and promising as a collection plate. He said, “I never meant to end up in a graveyard. Bowling”—his voice broke, he repaired it—“is what I got.”

She hired him on the spot. All during construction he came to the alley, to give advice, to shake Bertha Truitt’s hand. Every handshake was a test, he knew. She was a prophet of bowling but she needed other people to love it, too.

“Jeptha Arrison will be the Captain of the Pinbodies,” she told him. That was her own word to describe the boys and men who set the candlepins. “Everyone else is yours to hire or fire. Do a good job,” she told him, “and one day the alley will come to you.”

There was something wrong with Jeptha Arrison—he was minuscule but had an enormous and lopsided head—and Joe Wear wasn’t sure he wanted to be joined to him in an alley wedding. There was something wrong with Joe Wear, too, but he knew how things worked. Everywhere else women bowled behind a curtain, to protect their modesty, to protect men from the spectacle of feminine sport. A steel curtain, so that you couldn’t even see the outline of waist or ankle.

“You want women in here, you’ll need a curtain,” he said.

“Well,” said Bertha, “I invented the game, so I suppose I make the rules.”

“How’s that?” he said.

“I invented this strain of bowling.”

She was older than he was, and would pay his salary, and for a moment he thought about agreeing, then found he was already saying, “Looks like ordinary candlepin to me.”

“It is not.”

“In Worcester—”

Truitt barked. With laughter? Not quite. With anger? No, she barked, a noise that meant who’s there and I’m here and nothing at all.

“I have never been to Worcester,” she said.

“Anyhow,” said Joe Wear. He could feel the long muscles of his arms spasming, and he crossed them. Not everyone would give him a job, never mind one of authority. He should be grateful and agreeable. But hadn’t he saved her from foolishness once? Hadn’t he been hired for his knowledge? “You’ll need a curtain,” he said again.

Bertha Truitt knew it was wrong to protect somebody else’s modesty. Your modesty was your own. “No curtain, Joe.”

“You’ll get gawkers.”

“Let ’em gawk.”

That was that.

Gawkers, gapers, gogglers, oglers! She couldn’t see them, she was ogle-blind. She rode a bicycle around the city in her split skirt and never wobbled even when the sidewalk boys hooted at her. She still found her way into people’s dreams, still dissolved in daylight. Perhaps she was a succubus or a vampire, the way she snuck into dreams and returned to Salford in daylight, reading the funny papers on the sidewalk, laughing so loud the pigeons scattered. She even appeared in the Salford Bugle itself, beneath the headline NEW BOWLING ESTABLISHMENT INVITES ALL WOMEN. In the photograph accompanying the article, Truitt seems to be in mourning, as all women of a certain bustline do: her very bosom grieves, and is brave, and soldiers on. Upon this bosom a bowling alley was founded.

She must have had ancestors. Everyone does. She seemed to have arrived in Salford sui generis, of her own kind, though of course genealogists don’t believe such a thing exists. No generation is ever spontaneous. We are none of us our own kind.

“I have been parented by pamphlets,” Bertha Truitt liked to say, not thinking that a bad thing. The pamphlets were outdated, quaint, quite often hateful. She was the oddest combination of the future and the past anyone had ever met.

Every month she opened the alleys for a fete. Beer and beef, oysters, pints of ice cream, brandy, a cake riddled with cherries, pies of all sorts (pork, treacle, kidney), more beer. Each fete lasted the entire day, was serially every kind of gathering: in the morning, a party for children, then a ladies’ lunch, then a tea, cocktails, then (as the day began to unravel) a light supper, a frolic, a soiree, a carousal, a blowout, a dance, and as people began to drink themselves sober, a conversation, an optimistic repentance, a vow for greatness, love. Sometimes the party circled around and began again, though on those days you had to be careful Bertha Truitt did not offer beer to your child: she liked children, but she made no concessions to them. These were the stories told later. Married people would say, Well, we got married three years ago, but we first met—we really met—at Truitt’s at either 10:00 or 2:00 A.M.

Truitt herself told no stories. In the middle of each party, she stood and picked cherries out of her slice of cake and looked hopefully at the door, happy enough at who she saw but never, it seemed, satisfied. Month after month, whoever she waited for stood her up.

The women of Truitt’s Alleys bowled right out in the open, a spectacle: LuEtta Mood, Hazel Forest, Mary Gearheart, Nora Riker, Bertha Truitt.

Nora Riker was a round-headed square-bodied woman of twenty-nine, as alfalfa-scented and jostling as a goat. She was married to a similarly sawed-off hard-cornered man named Norman. In public they wrestled. There didn’t seem to be anything carnal in it nor any meanness; they tumbled like goats, like Airedales. Even playing whist they shoved each other, guffawed. Even dancing. She was looking for a game she could beat him at.

Hazel Forest was a suffragette like Bertha. At least, Hazel thought Bertha was; they had met on a march, though she later realized that Bertha would join any march at any time, if she happened to be nearby: she liked the chance to walk and holler simultaneously. Hazel had the spectacles of a suffragette, and the bitter sense of humor, made bitterer by her job as a surgical nurse at the Salford Hospital. She’d surveyed the inside of bodies and was always threatening to tell other women what she had seen.

Mary Gearheart was the youngest, seventeen. Her father owned the vaudeville house. She had small eyes and a big mouth, like a carnivorous mouse. She bowled to keep her hands busy. To keep the throwing, smashing part of her brain busy, too.

LuEtta Mood was beautiful. She’d heard it was possible to bowl away sorrow.

Truitt bowled because the earth was an ocean and you had to learn to roll upon it.

“I do not wear the corset,” Truitt told LuEtta Mood, Mary Gearheart, Hazel Forest, Nora Riker. They had never met a woman like her. She spread her wings to display herself. “The corset confuses the organs. Besides, the game of candlepin is a boon to the female form. It trims the waist, firms the arm, and lifts the bust. Regard me.”

The women did, worriedly. Bertha Truitt was a plump five and a half feet tall, her uncorsetted torso rhomboid, sensual. They all knew the story of her arrival in the cemetery; Mary said she’d heard she’d been found with the body of her dead child, and that candlepin bowling was the peculiar way she’d gone mad with grief.

“Sorry,” Mary had said to LuEtta Mood, who had her own dead child, and LuEtta waved the apology and the fact away.

They had no idea how old Truitt was. Older than them, younger than their mothers, mesmerizing.

“Now watch my form,” Truitt said. They did, they did. Her shoes were off, her hat was on—already she was famous in Salford for her hats, which she had special made. Today’s hat was navy blue and waffled; today, she was a member of a foreign navy. She bowled in rolled shirtsleeves. Her right forearm was carved of oak, her left one of marble. Seven steps, and then delivery. Jeptha Arrison, up on the pinboys’ shelf, wrung his hands. They all watched the ball make its way down the lane.

“You got a wrong foot approach there, Troot,” called the orphan Joe Wear. What he meant: usually a left-handed bowler makes her last step with her right foot; Bertha Truitt bowled and stepped with her whole left side. It shouldn’t have worked. She knocked down six pins. Joe gave a low whistle and Jeptha Arrison echoed it, like birdcall, a nervous avian declaration.

“Thanks, Joe,” Truitt said lightly, to the pins—Joe wouldn’t have been able to hear her—then turned to look at her team. Like Nora Riker, she wanted to win. She just wanted to win everything of all time.

The invention of a sport: here is a ball, now throw it through that net, if those other guys’ll let you. Here is a bat: somebody’s going to throw a ball at you and you knock it away and run, if those other guys’ll let you. Here is a tiny ball and a stick and out of view beyond that grassy hill is a ball-size hole: you figure it out.

Here is a ball. Heft it in your hand. Nobody’s going to stop you. Some man might call out with advice, too much advice, but in the end it’s your game to play and your game to win.

Bertha Truitt picked up the second ball of the frame and tested the weight in her hand, a little toss, then brought it up and touched just the plump underside of her chin with just the cool curve at the top of the ball. She looked at how the pins lay, four standing, interlaced with the dead wood. Then she bowled.

The ball knocked over three more pins, and Joe Wear whistled again, lower, graver. He came over to watch; he stood behind the women, who sat on the rush-seated benches as though at church. LuEtta Mood asked, over her shoulder, “Is that good?” In the dark of the alley her hair shone like polished brass. It irked Joe Wear.

“I’d say so.”

In those days to knock down nine pins in candlepin bowling was a feat, no matter your age or sex or waistline. The balls were smaller, the pins narrower, the approaches not oiled or even varnished, just rough fricative wood.

The third ball knocked over the last pin. “Ten box!” said Joe Wear.

Jeptha Arrison dropped down to the wood to reset, fetched the balls and bowled them back along the return, started resetting the pins on their metal deck.

“Good roll, Troot!” he called. “A real good one.”

“All right, pinbody,” she called back fondly. Nobody had a more interesting head than Jeptha. “Set ’em up.”

The women watched Bertha Truitt bowl an entire game till they fell into the rhythm. You set your brain to bowling time and got caught up in the serial nature of it. Three balls a frame, ten frames a string. They hadn’t realized that bowling was so full of suspense. A story: our hero (the ball) sets out on his journey (the approach), travels the length of his world until he runs into trouble, acquits himself well or badly, end of chapter.

Turn the page!

The only pause was at the end of every frame, when Jeptha Arrison jumped down to pluck the balls from the pit, then set the pins back up on the plate.

“Seventy-seven!” Joe Wear called out when Bertha had finished her first string.

“No thank you, Joe!” Bertha Truitt called back. “No score, thank you!”

Well, that was like a woman, wasn’t it. No score.

What she wanted was a kind of greatness that women were not allowed. If they were allowed a small measure of it, they had to forsake love. She forsook nothing

Excerpt from Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken. Copyright 2019 by Elizabeth McCracken. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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