“But sorrow doesn’t shape your life. It knocks the shape out. It severs, it unstuffs, it dissolves. It explodes.”
“An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination,” McCracken’s exquisite 2008 memoir about her stillborn child, was a chronicle of shattered joy and expectation. The collection of short stories she published in 2014, “Thunderstruck,” was also sharply focused on loss, all kinds of loss, and the spaces it leaves behind. Always, though, shining through the carefully, beautifully painted grays, is the clarity of McCracken’s humor, bright and invigorating, like flickers of sunlight. Humor illuminates her work, revealing things clearly that we might have overlooked.
McCracken refuses to distinguish between the absurdity of comedy and the absurdity of tragedy. Her first novel, “The Giant’s House,” was a seamless expression of that comic/tragic vision. “Bowlaway” (her third novel, and first in 18 years) is jumpier, twitchier, a big book that veers in and out of the lives of its idiosyncratic characters, creating what McCracken calls a “genealogy,” occasionally verging, in its bric-a-brac of historical oddball detail, on the precious. But McCracken’s ironic perspective, her humor and her deeply humane imagination never desert her.
After Bertha’s death, Leviticus wants to create a monument to her, a doll that Joe Wear will carve out of bowling pins.
“… No such thing as life-size: you’d always be fractionally off, and the difference would be heartbreaking.
“He drew a shape in the air. ‘Yea high,’ he said. ‘Yea wide.’
“‘Smaller,’ said Leviticus. ‘Has to be.’”
The doll can never fill the exact space of the person it represents; the doll has to be smaller because Bertha’s life was so big, because all life is so big. Even so, the Bertha doll has a life of its own in the novel, a work of art that is ignored, loved, mocked and admired, that disappears and reappears, worn and decrepit and important. The Bertha doll haunts the bowling alley, and the people there, like a dream — realistic but not real, not alive but not dead, either.
Some of the novel’s characters believe in ghosts, or try to. After Leviticus Sprague’s death, the people of Salford dream about the doctor and even experience ghostly visitations. One woman, who had a miscarriage years ago, dreams that Dr. Sprague tells her she is pregnant. On waking up, she does the math and realizes she is. “Not sorcery. Not a miracle. As with most unbelievable things, it was mere and shocking biology.”