Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Book Review: Bowling Avenue

I could not be busting with pride more if I wrote this myself.

Ann Shayne of Mason Dixon Knitting fame has written a novel!  And published it all by herself!  It's available through various media here.  Go get it, it's totally worth it.  

Seriously, being a fan of the blog for years, I had been anticipating Ann's non-blog writing for a long time. I read Mason Dixon Knitting for the writing quality and the witty humor, the knitting and beauty, and the lurking-but-always-present depth of feeling of these two women. They are a force of good in the world, and I'm so glad to know them (I do know them, I've met them in person for real.) So it would have been easy for me to support Ann's book and read it and adore it simply because it's hers, and I could have probably overlooked a number of little flaws for her sake, even though I'm typically a major writing snob.

But there was nothing to overlook, nothing to forgive for the sake of friendship, because it's a great novel! It's a delightful read, through and through, and I felt perfectly justified in my confident anticipation of an excellent piece of writing from Ann.  I was laughing and stomping the floor with glee by page 24, in celebration of her writing style. This was the first time I've read a novel written by someone whose voice is already familiar, and it was such a pleasure to hear this voice come alive in novel format. And it works. The whole thing works so well, I got caught up in the characters and often forgot that I was reading Ann's novel. She's there and she's not there, which is surely an indication of good writing.

If you'll indulge me, I'd like to include an excerpt that epitomizes the flow of thoughts, images and language. It's from early on in the book, when Delia is trying to cope with the idea of selling her sister Ginna's house and has gone for a walk.

The merciful thing about Ginna's neighborhood is that the houses are spaced so far apart that nobody needs to talk to each other, at all. Splendid isolation. It's as if the guy who laid out these plots, one fat acre after another, calculated exactly how far the human eye can discern the features of a face, and that was the distance from the center of one lot to the next. I have no idea who lives next door. It's not neighborhood, really. It feels like that desert in Arizona where they mothball old jetliners.

Ahead, a stacked stone wall has collapsed. Stones are scattered all over the ground, sorted by size. I see a figure moving behind the wall, down low. It's that guy with the alarm code who came up the driveway the other day. Ichabod Crane.

He stand, like a giraffe, with a pair of small stones in each hand. "Hello," he says blandly. He seems to be wearing the same clothes he wore the other day, which would be creepy except that I seem to be wearing the same clothes, too.

There's an approachable thoughtfulness in this self-deprecating Delia, and her awkward way provides the comic relief for the heaviness of the situations she's going through. A quite incredible load of family Stuff gets unpacked in this story, and the tinge of absurdity, in characters and descriptions, saves us from despair. This mixture of dead serious and slapstick funny is a trademark of the author's, and it blends so seamlessly that you don't realize until afterward how important that relationship is.

I'm reminded of a classmate of mine who survived breast cancer, and as a drama professor with experience in clowning, decided to write a comedy about it. It was a one-woman show, and she used her comic abilities to communicate things that people may not have been able to listen to otherwise. She also talked about how the clowning, the silliness, was an essential tool in helping her get through it all.  This seems to be one of the themes in Bowling Avenue, or maybe I should say a modus operandi.

Another prevailing theme is how little we might know about our families, and how much people may have to hide. Layers and layers emerge slowly, driving the pace of the novel in a kind of slow, psychological suspense. Nothing's happening very fast: this is Nashville, after all.

The only criticism I could think of people leveling at this book is that there's not a single mean character to be found.  If you must have a villain, you may be disappointed, but if it doesn't bother you to see people revealed to be basically decent, welcome to Bowling Avenue.


Laura said...

Thank you so much for this insightful in-depth review.
I went immediately and got myself a summer reading - big smile and lots of Dankeschöns!

Bullwinkle said...

Loved your review. I've been trying to put my finger on why I was surprised by this book, i.e. I did not have high hopes for the writing or the story. And I was wrong on both counts. You nailed a few of my thoughts down. Thank you.

Indigonightowl said...

I enjoyed your review so much, that I went to amazon and read the entire excerpt that they provided...and my copy just arrived today! I can't wait. :)