On a sunny afternoon, the novelist Elizabeth McCracken approaches her lane at Sacco’s Bowl Haven in Somerville, Massachusetts, and selects a small red bowling ball (lucky, she says) from a row of black ones. She fixes her eyes on the slender, cylindrical pins at the far end of the alley, takes a few strides, and sends the ball rolling straight and true down the center of the lane. It seems destined to earn her a strike or at least a spare, but something funny happens. The ball hits a single pin, knocking it backward and out of formation. The hole gapes like a missing tooth. The other pins don’t even wobble. McCracken laughs and shrugs. “That’s candlepin!” she says.
McCracken, who wears her dark hair in loose waves and favors bright red lipstick, could tell you a thing or two about candlepin bowling. Her latest book, Bowlaway, is a tragicomic, multigenerational saga about a candlepin alley and the family whose joy and misfortune it is to run it. The story opens at the end of the 19th century with the discovery of a body in a cemetery, “but aboveground and alive.” This is Bertha Truitt, a mysterious woman who, regaining consciousness, claims (spuriously) to have invented candlepin bowling and opens an alley in Salford, Massachusetts, forging a legacy that will give purpose to the townspeople and her progeny—and oftentimes be their undoing—for generations.
Bowlaway’s Bertha Truitt did not invent candlepin bowling, and neither did Elizabeth McCracken, to the surprise of some readers. “I’ve had a few people say to me, ‘I thought you made up candlepin bowling!’” she says. McCracken’s readers can be forgiven for their ignorance; with the exception of some parts of Canada, the highly regional game doesn’t exist outside New England, where it originated in the town of Worcester, Massachusetts, around 1880. But New Englanders are fiercely loyal to their version of the sport. “It’s real, it’s a game of skill, it’s the better bowling!” McCracken insists. Growing up in Newton, Massachusetts, she belonged to a candlepin league at a basement alley with warped lanes. “Often half the pins would fall over before you’d even bowled,” she recalls. “Still, I was a really bad bowler. I got the trophy for Most Conscientious.”
For the uninitiated, candlepin differs from the more standard tenpin bowling in a few significant ways. The balls are smaller and lighter—they’re about the size and weight of bocce balls—and at each turn, a candlepin bowler rolls three balls rather than two. The pins are thin and, yes, candle-shaped, slightly wider at the middle, flat on top and bottom. And unlike tenpin, downed pins aren’t cleared away during a player’s turn, allowing a bowler to “play the wood” by rolling the ball into the scattered pins in hopes of knocking down those still standing.
This might make candlepin sound like Bowling Lite; in fact, the opposite is true. The pins are maddeningly hard to knock over. A perfect game—strikes every time—is 300 points. A reasonably accomplished tenpin bowler might expect to score in the mid-hundreds. The highest score ever recorded in the history of candlepin is 245, according to the International Candlepin Bowling Association, and it’s only happened twice. During the two games we play at Sacco’s, McCracken and I each score between 50 and 60 points, dismal efforts she proclaims “excellent.” As McCracken writes in Bowlaway, candlepin is “a game of purity for former Puritans, a game of devotion that will always fail.”
McCracken, who’s written six acclaimed books and has twice been nominated for the National Book Award, teaches fiction at the University of Texas, Austin. She sometimes finds it difficult to reconcile her life in Texas—where she’s spent the past 9 years—with her identity as a New Englander. “You go to Texas and people are polite and smiling, and your immediate reaction is, What do you want from me? In New England we’re crabby and mean … and also lovely!” Bowlaway, then, is something of a tribute. “I was missing New England,” she says, “so I wanted to write about something that was very New Englandish.”
What could be more New Englandish—land of pragmatism and dogged determination—than candlepin bowling? “I think there’s something about the fact that perfection is impossible that feels very pilgrim forefathers and mothers,” she says. “ There’s no ecstasy because strikes are so uncommon.” It’s also a game of continual renewals. At the end of her turn at Sacco’s Bowl Haven, McCracken hits the reset button and watches as the automatic pinsetter lowers 10 new pins onto the lane. “One of the things I like about bowling is that sense of always hoping that you might knock down all the pins,” she muses. “Or most of the pins. Every time it resets, you think: This might be the time!”