In Praise of Real Bowling

I grew up playing (and wrote a novel about) candlepin bowling. This New England variant is harder than tenpin bowling, and it’s better, too.

A stock image of candlepin bowling pins, which are much more symmetrical than standard tenpins.
Candlepin bowling pins. gmnicholas/iStock/Getty Images Plus

I was not an athletic child—I’m not an athletic adult—and during my New England childhood I indulged mostly in the grade-school sports imposed upon me in gym class: bombardment (what we called dodgeball), gymnastics of the somersault variety, and—this being the 1970s—lessons in the Hustle. This being the 1970s—you should probably preface every sentence in this essay thusly—I roller skated at many birthday parties. Also I had my hair cut into a Dorothy Hamill, if that counts as sporty. Sports were supposed to teach you to be a team player. I was already quite aware that I wasn’t one.

But I did belong to an athletic organization: I was a member of a candlepin bowling league.

Candlepin bowling is almost exclusively a New England sport, played with small balls held in the palm and palindromic pins that are the same upside down as right-side up. Bowling of some sort has been around forever—there’s evidence of it in ancient Egypt—and for some reason in the late 19th century, when American sports were in their infancy and most of the country decided to bowl with large balls and bottle-shaped pins, my part of Massachusetts zagged to candlepin. (Other parts of the country have other regional variations—ninepin, fivepin, duckpin.)

There is practically no way to describe candlepin without comparing it to tenpin bowling. In tenpin, bowlers throw one frame at a time, two balls per frame; in candlepin, two frames, usually called boxes, three balls a box. Because both the pins and balls are lighter, play is unpredictable. People have been bowling perfect games in tenpin since the turn of the 20th century; nobody has ever bowled a perfect game of candlepin, a strike every ball for an unthinkable score of 300. In other words, with its zaftig pins and heavy balls, tenpin is easier. This is a statistical fact. Tenpin is a game of brute force and pure slapstick. Candlepin is full of heartbreak and poetry and luck. The pins dance and dodge. Sometimes they fall over when you least expect it. Sometimes they persevere.

The author, far right, holding a candlepin bowling trophy, like everyone else.
The author, far right, holding a candlepin bowling trophy, like everyone else. Elizabeth McCracken

We didn’t know that our bowling was a regional variation. To us—the members of the Lincoln-Eliot Junior Bowling League—it was just bowling. Even now New Englanders will say, of candlepin, Oh, you mean real bowling. We fell into the rhythms of it. We bowled in a basement alley, 10 lanes, no sunlight. No bumper guards either. Wonky ball returns that jammed. The pin-setting machines, too, were old, and got stuck, or set the pins down only to have them instantly fall over. (The first automatic bowling pin-setting machines, introduced at Whalom Park in Lunenberg, Massachusetts, were for candlepins—it’s easier to set pins that are the same size at both ends.) The bowling alley owner had to fix the pinsetters when they jammed, and disappeared up into the mechanism. I always worried he was going to get crushed and smashed into the triangular shape of the pin-setting machine. He was a youngish man with a mustache. I don’t remember that he had a single employee. Even then he struck me as a lonely, troubling person. He’d put posters up on the wall, AC/DC and April Wine.

In any sort of bowling, there is a certain amount of standing around, not just while you wait for your turn but during your turn. Once the ball has left your hand there’s nothing you can do. You perform the action, and then you wait to see how successful the action will be. I was not a good bowler. I spent a lot of time watching the ball wobbling down the lane. Sometimes it dropped immediately in the gutter; sometimes it waited till it had nearly met the pins. A few times I bowled so weakly the ball fell into the gutter and stopped. Then one of the bowling mothers would have to hail the mustachioed man: We all knew no civilian could walk past the foul line and onto the lane.

People speak condescendingly of today’s young people expecting participation trophies, but friends, I have bowling trophies from that era, and I surely did not earn them. One of them was for something like “fourth high double.” It’s possible that by some mathematical quirk this was true, that I once bowled better than I ordinarily did for two games in a row and was in the upper third of all bowlers for this particular statistic. More likely, the bowling mothers knew that there was no way to check. Other kids took home trophies for high single, high double, high triple. We all got them. My friend Louise still has her trophy for high single, 113; she still remembers that the kid who won second high single got a bigger trophy because he was the son of one of the bowling mothers. Candlepin bowling leaves its scars.

I once received a bowling trophy marked Elizabeth McCracken: Most Consciences. They meant Most Conscientious, which I suppose was meant to sound like the bowling equivalent of Miss Congeniality. I don’t know how a child can be a conscientious bowler, though I like to think I did always press the button to reset the pins for the next person, and I never tried to lie about my score, which is to say I probably did have the most consciences.

These days I still candlepin bowl when I’m in New England. I take my kids, often to Sacco’s Bowl Haven in Somerville, which—this being the 2010s—has been revamped and sells pizza and has a full bar and is always crowded, one of those old-timey activities that’s new again, like knitting or pickling. You score on paper. You throw the ball and wait.

I’m still quite bad. I still find the poetry in it. I persevere.