Bleak House meets Our Town in a century-spanning novel set in a New England bowling alley.
More than many writers, McCracken (Thunderstruck and Other Stories, 2014, etc.) understands the vast variety of ways to be human and the vast variety of ways human beings have come up with to love each other, not all of them benevolent. She also understands how all those different ways spring from the same yearning impulse. She names her new novel—which she calls “a genealogy”—after its setting, a candlepin bowling alley founded by the novel’s matriarch, who is said to have invented the game. “Maybe somebody else had invented the game first. That doesn’t matter. We have all of us invented things that others have beat us to: walking upright, a certain sort of sandwich involving avocado and an onion roll, a minty sweet cocktail, ourselves, romantic love, human life.” McCracken's parade of Dickensian grotesques fall in love, feud, reproduce, vanish, and reappear, all with a ridiculous dignity that many readers, if they’re honest, will cringe to recognize from their own lives. The plot is stylized: One character dies in the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, another by spontaneous human combustion. There are orphans, secret wills, and hidden treasure. But unlike Dickens’, McCracken’s plot works more by iteration than clockwork, like linked stories, or a series of views of the same landscape from different vantage points in different seasons, or the frames in a bowling game. Her psychological acuity transforms what might otherwise have been a twee clutter of oddball details into moving metaphors for the human condition. “Our subject is love,” she writes. “Unrequited love, you might think, the heedless headstrong ball that hurtles nearsighted down the alley. It has to get close before it can pick out which pin it loves the most, which pin it longs to set spinning. Then I love you! Then blammo. The pins are reduced to a pile, each one entirely all right in itself. Intact and bashed about. Again and again, the pins stand for it until they’re knocked down.”
Parents and children, lovers, brothers and sisters, estranged spouses, work friends and teammates all slam themselves together and fling themselves apart across the decades in the glorious clatter of McCracken’s unconventional storytelling.