Bradley Babendir | Longreads | Februrary 2019 | 8 minutes (2,181 words)
Elizabeth McCracken is great at beginnings. Take, for instance, the opening line of her new novel Bowlaway: “They found a body in the Salford Cemetery, but aboveground and alive.” Or, take the first line of “It’s Bad Luck To Die,” the first story in her debut collection Here’s Your Hat, What’s Your Hurry: “Maybe you wonder how a Jewish girl from Des Moines got Jesus Christ tattooed on her three times.” That book, originally published in 1993, is being reissued by Ecco Books this week alongside Bowlaway, so readers have an opportunity to skip backward and forward in time, reading McCracken’s past work alongside her latest, a sensation similar to what reading McCracken is always like: the past and the future mysteriously entangled, old endings flowing seamlessly into new beginnings.
The second story in Here’s Your Hat, my favorite in the collection, called “Some Have Entertained Angels, Unaware,” is about a widower and father of two daughters who has begun to invite drifters into his home. There’s a loose arrangement to have housework done in exchange for room and board, but mostly the father just likes having people around to talk with. At one point, a boarder asks the host for a story from his family’s past, and he demures. “‘Look,’ said Dad, madder than I’d ever seen him before. ‘I don’t own any, okay? The family tree…begins with me.’” His children, who are narrating the story, do not interpret their father’s reticence as a sad or shameful secret: “He wanted his children to have better. That’s why he took in the boarders.” The chaos, as they see it, is an act of grace, a gift to their future selves. When their father eventually skips out, they miss him but are also fine. The boarders — their family — take good care of them. Looking back, the older of the daughters still harbors no ill will against their father:
“It still makes sense to me. If you’re unhappy, you leave. Maybe if I’d known my mother, she’d tell me that people have to compromise. My friends, motherly and helpful, still explain this. They mean men, of course; but I find it hard enough to compromise with the facts of living: a need for vitamins, the ringing telephone. Life yells: accept me, take care of this, you’re not paying attention. Compromise with a person? Out of the question.”
The story is about, and is, a very unusual structure that has bred a very unusual perspective, a kind of paradigm-knocking setup that is typical of McCracken’s work.
The subject matter — a style of bowling popular in New England and nowhere else — is esoteric, but its reach is universal, even cosmic.
The titular “Here’s Your Hat, What’s Your Hurry” is about a woman always referred to as “Aunt Helen Beck.” Aunt Helen Beck floats from town to town, living for months at a time with people whom she has tricked into believing are her relatives. Part of Aunt Helen Beck’s appeal, for her readers and her marks, is her sharp wit:
“Aunt Helen Beck had many intentions about her death. She was about being dead the way some people are about being British — she wasn’t, and it seemed she never would be, but it was clearly something she aspired to, since all the people she respected were.”
The cleanliness of the sentiment gives it the feel of a slightly practiced line, like it’s a polka-dot hanky Aunt Helen Beck could pull out of her pocketbook to draw your attention at a crucial moment. Hidden behind the line, only just peaking through, is a grifter’s pathos — the excruciating loneliness of wishing you were someone else.
The story runs through several short anecdotes about some of Aunt Helen Beck’s past stays before getting to its main focus, her latest trip to Orcas Island to stay with Ford, the man she currently claims to be related to, and his wife, Chris. It becomes clear that, although Aunt Helen Beck makes her entrance under false pretenses, she is not looking for a free ride. “She got up early to bake bread, examined the books that were on the shelves and referred to them in conversation. She did dishes immediately; cooked for herself; went to bed early and pretended to sleep soundly.”
Her considerate behavior makes her a peculiarly good houseguest. Between that and her charming conversation, she is irresistible. Chris and Ford invite her to stay indefinitely.
‘Can’t stay forever,’ said Aunt Helen Beck.
‘Well,’ said Chris. She thought it over. ‘For a while, at least. For as long as you like. Why not?’
‘Dear me,’ said Aunt Helen Beck. ‘You’re sure to think of a reason eventually.’
To Chris and Ford this is simply a self-deprecating comment, endearing in its own right, but to readers and to Aunt Helen Beck herself, it’s got the added bite of acknowledging the limits to her deception; she knows they’ve got to figure it out eventually.
Aunt Helen Beck lives this way because she has no other good options, but it’s obvious that she also enjoys the thrill of it. When McCracken’s characters are desperate, they are never defined by their desperation. They do whatever they can to get what they need, but they manage to do it on their terms.
Bowlaway, McCracken’s new novel — and I would argue, even with the wonderful, National Book Award-nominated The Giant’s House in her catalog, her masterpiece — extends over many decades, starting in the early-20th century with the aforementioned body in the cemetery. The body is Bertha Truitt’s. The men who find her are Dr. Leviticus Sprague and Joe Wear. She is clutching a candlepin, claiming to have invented a new type of bowling. She’s lying — the structure of the book never really entertains otherwise — but, along with Leviticus as her eventual husband and Joe as her first employee, she opens Truitt’s Alley. From there, Bowlaway follows a series of family members and patrons throughout their lives. The subject matter — a style of bowling popular in New England and nowhere else — is esoteric, but its reach is universal, even cosmic:
“Our subject is love because our subject is bowling. Candlepin bowling. This is New England, and even the violence is cunning and subtle. It still could kill you. A candlepin ball is small, two and a half pounds, four and a half inches in diameter, a grapefruit, an operable tumor. You heft it in your palm. Candlepin bowling is a game of skill: nobody has ever bowled a perfect string, every pin with every ball, all the way through, till you’ve knocked down 130 pins in a row, multiplied and transformed by math and bowling into a 300 game. Nobody’s got more than five-sixths of the way there. Nobody, in other words, may look upon the face of God.”
The story frequently shifts focus, following different characters who have in some way organized their lives around candlepin bowling. These changes in points of view are not restricted to chapter breaks or some other convention; the changes are much more sudden, sometimes over as soon as they’ve happened. This means that for Bowlaway to be enjoyable, or even readable, the prose must be pristine and clear, the voices of the characters must be distinct and memorable, and when the narrative moves from doing one thing to another, be it within a chapter, a page, or a paragraph, it must be both smooth and definitive. The overall effect of this is mystifying, like a shirt with no seams. The only proof that it’s possible is that it exists.
A structure like this requires a great deal of efficiency and restraint. Take, for example, this description of Bertha’s experience of pregnancy. It’s important to give the subject its due, make it distinct to Bertha, and to do it all quickly:
At first pregnancy was like an idea she had, present, indefinite, entirely hers. A wait-and-see thing. Doomed, maybe. A bad idea. Then it was like a train ticket somebody had folded into her hand without telling her the destination, and she’d been put on a train and had to keep her fist shut till the conductor came through. Then as though somebody else’s bag on the train—here, hold this—had been settled into her lap so she couldn’t move around the way she liked, the bag’s owner striding off into the next car. Soon enough it was as though that stranger had picked up the bag and had sat extraordinary close to her, but in a clever way, so that she could not complain, call the conductor to have that person removed.
There’s a lilt to this paragraph that is marvelous; the extended metaphor is all the more hypnotizing because of its jerky start. It’s so evocative that little else on the experience of her pregnancy needs to be said.
The overall effect…. is mystifying, like a shirt with no seams. The only proof that it’s possible is that it exists.
This roving narration doesn’t follow the characters you expect it to. A series of fatal tragedies leaves Bertha Truitt’s daughter, Minna, without parents. She moves away to Canada, and out of the narrative, to live with her father’s relatives. Unexpectedly, for the town and for the reader (it’s startling how the effect of McCracken’s fiction is to make the reader feel as buffeted by the winds of fate as one of her characters), a man named Nahum Truitt shows up in Salford. He claims to be another child of Bertha’s, though he is suspiciously old. Nobody is in much of a position to dispute his claim to the bowling alley, and he takes it over. He eventually marries Margaret Vanetten, who had appeared in the novel earlier as Minna Truitt’s caretaker. From this point forward, the novel accelerates. Martha and Nahum have a pair of children, and their children grow up. The day-to-day world of the bowling alley is still the central focus, but details are condensed, and the book’s deployment of information becomes more complicated and layered. As Martha and Nahum’s sons, Roy and Arch Truitt, become adults with their own lives alongside the existing characters, a high level of finesse is required to manage everything.
Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.
Here is an example of a complicated, layered moment: Arch, the younger of Nahum and Margaret’s children, returns from World War II, having fallen in love via correspondence with a young woman named Cracker, his older brother Roy’s ex-girlfriend. When the following passage appears in the book, the couple have established their mutual feelings for one another, but have not even gone on a date, let alone gotten married:
“It was for love of Cracker that [Arch] slept with Joan (he told himself): he wanted to make sure he wasn’t making love up. You had to test things: love, bravery, loyalty, you had to make sure your versions of these things were up to the task. Every time he slept around — and he did, all through their marriage — he thought of it as a test: if after this I see that I am not in love with my wife, I’ll leave her and end her misery. But he was always in love with his wife. She didn’t seem to think this news was as good as he did, but she was entangled, too.”
In that space of that paragraph, we see far into the future. The point of view feels like it is Arch’s right up until the last sentence, when it flexes away from him, to Cracker. The dynamic is not necessarily one of omniscience, but obviousness. People, the book seems to be saying, instinctively know what is going to happen, because they know each other; we can tell all along how we are eventually going to hurt each other. The heartbreak is not a surprise, not in the book’s telling of it nor the characters’ experience of it. Bad turns of events, abandonments, cruelties, are events to be borne pragmatically, like by the daughter left behind to live with boarders, or by the homeless Aunt Helen Beck, who always make sure to leave people before they ask her to go.
In Bowlaway, characters’ lives seem to be stacked on top of one another; the book’s narrative focus moves where the story moves, without fear of losing the reader. Reading Here’s Your Hat, What’s Your Hurry alongside Bowlaway helps the reader see how McCracken developed this style. Aunt Helen Beck lies to her marks, but the reader is not one of them. With the reader, she is open and to the point — almost to a deeper point than feels comfortable. On the other hand, “Some Have Entertained Angels, Unaware” welcomes characters in and kicks them out without too much fanfare or backstory.
Bowlaway is a novel full of the characters written with sudden, precipitous depth, like Aunt Helen Beck, but that has a willingness to set them free, like a parent who drifts away, leaving one to be raised by boarders. McCracken knocks down all 130 pins.
* * *
Bradley Babendir is a freelancer and fiction writer living in Boston. His work has been published by The Washington Post, The Nation, and elsewhere.
Editor: Dana Snitzky