Death and life, frosted with macabre comedy: It’s why we’ve enjoyed Elizabeth McCracken since her debut novel, “The Giant’s House,” appeared more than 20 years ago. She never promises us freedom from pain, but she always offers just enough heart to endure it.
Her new novel, “Bowlaway,” is a rueful family saga that begins at the start of the 20th century and revolves around a bowling alley in the small town of Salford, Mass., north of Boston. “Our subject is love,” the narrator announces, “because our subject is bowling.” But not ordinary love and not ordinary bowling — nothing is ordinary in this story. The people of Salford play candlepin bowling — that smaller, harder version peculiar to New England: “a game of purity for former puritans.”
Once she recovers, the woman found alive in the cemetery — “without the expected underclothes” — claims to be the inventor of candlepin bowling. This seems unlikely, but she’s a woman who brooks no opposition. Her name is Bertha Truitt, and with her large breasts and babylike smile, she confounds people. Two months after her alarming appearance, she has built a six-lane bowling alley and captured the town’s imagination. “She was the oddest combination of the future and the past anyone had ever met,” the narrator says. Where did she come from? Does she have any relatives? Is it possible, as some suspect, that Bertha fell from the sky or that she’s a time traveler or the Salford Devil that’s been stalking the fens?
Such supernatural possibilities waft around Bertha’s alibi like foot odor in a bowling alley. But this is really a novel of characters, not mysteries, and Bertha is a whirlwind of personality capable of disrupting the staid patterns of Salford and drawing people into her orbit. Those include an African American doctor who earns her love but never the town’s. A pair of misfits find “noble work” at Truitt’s Alleys as pinsetters and become Bertha’s most ardent disciples. And once Bertha announces the myriad health benefits of bowling — “trims the waist, firms the arm, and lifts the bust” — women begin arriving to bowl “right out in the open, a spectacle.”
The novel is populated with a number of adults who still feel the sting of their orphaned childhoods. They pine for lives they can’t possess, or they feel haunted by ruinous affections they dare not name. They are people struggling in vain “to keep their eccentricities to themselves.” The ritualized setting up and knocking down of the pins offers these lonely characters a few hours of order and camaraderie, a chance to imagine communion with others. After all, as the narrator says, “It is unbearable to think that our private thoughts are truly private.”
But if this is a wonderfully weird place, it’s also absurdly dangerous. One grieving character spontaneously combusts, leaving only a charred shinbone to identify him. A contortionist is left to starve in a tiny box. Others are crushed by an errant piece of granite, drowned in molasses or beaten to death with a bowling ball.
Indeed, the tone of “Bowlaway” wobbles like a knocked pin that might fall toward comedy or tragedy. There’s a wickedness to McCracken’s technique, the way she lures us in with her witty voice and oddball characters but then kicks the wind out of us. She never misses the infamous 7-10 split, managing to hit Annie Proulx and Anne Tyler with the same ball.
Several of these episodes also serve as a reminder of what a masterful short story writer McCracken is. (Her 2014 collection, “Thunderstruck,” was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the Story Prize; “Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry,” her first collection from 1993, was just rereleased.) At the center of “Bowlaway,” there’s a chapter called “Rattled” in which the priggish manager of Truitt’s Alleys challenges a mother to a single game to determine whether women can remain regular customers. It’s a high-stakes gamble — and a tragicomedy perfectly constructed to include the hopes and fears of everyone in the alley that day, even the creepy little man setting pins. Few authors capture as well as McCracken does the way ruin and relief can strike a soul at the same moment.
“Sorrow doesn’t shape your life,” the narrator says. “It knocks the shape out. It severs, it unstuffs, it dissolves. It explodes.” That’s a fair description of what happens to these quirky folks. As the decades pass, “Bowlaway” follows the unlikely trajectories of lives struck hard by joy and grief. The tangled generations that follow Bertha have little sense of what a phenomenon she was, but their experiences are still influenced by her kinetic energy. Such is the endlessly surprising course of genealogy in this novel with compassion to spare.
On Friday at 7 p.m., Elizabeth McCracken will be in conversation with novelist Matthew Klam at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington.