Bertha is larger than life in many ways. She’s big and bosomy, which is worth remarking because so many of the people in this novel, men and women, have had too much cake and too little exercise. McCracken writes wonderfully and perceptively about large bodies. If she were a painter or sculptor, she’d be Fernando Botero or Henry Moore, not Modigliani or El Greco.
Bertha, who is described as a “prophet of bowling,” opens a candlepin alley. The place is a success, in part because of its feminist bona fides. In most bowling alleys at the time, McCracken writes, women had to bowl behind curtains, separated from the men for modesty’s sake. Not here.
Women bowling in the open bring gawkers, “because where else could you see such a good-looking girl dewy with sweat and happiness, and not pay a cent, and not have to go to confession?”
This candlepin alley attracts ghosts. A major character spontaneously combusts. Another dies in the Great Molasses Flood of 1919, which is a correlative, at times, for the experience of reading “Bowlaway.”
The alley attracts orphans and sensitive, damaged souls, the heartbroken and the disinherited. As this novel moves through the decades we follow them, as well as the children of Bertha and others. Some go to New York City. Others go to wars. Some open their own bowling alleys.
The plot has many resonances but never fully sets its hooks in us. The politics of nearly all its characters, with respect to feminism, interracial marriage, and gay and lesbian tendencies, are anachronistically progressive.
This novel’s cast grows epic, but McCracken is always most impressive when she works small, when she is describing movie kisses or corsets or simply loneliness and longing.
One man in “Bowlaway” likes drinking for the same reason I like her sentences: “Beer turned on the lights, warmed the furniture.”