The Pinsetter’s Lament

What makes humans human? What distinguishes us from the machines we design to perform our tasks, machines we admire for their elegant mimicry, then resent and fear? If a compelling case ...

This is the 16th installment of our series An Engineer Reads a Novel.


What makes humans human? What distinguishes us from the machines we design to perform our tasks, machines we admire for their elegant mimicry, then resent and fear? If a compelling case for human exceptionalism is made by the exceptional humans populating Elizabeth McCracken’s new novel, Bowlaway, the core of that case is a human emotion that has proven resistant to mechanization.

“Our subject is love,” McCracken writes, “because our subject is bowling. Candlepin bowling.” Bowlaway purports to be a genealogy of this niche New England sport.1 That genealogy’s fearless matriarch, Bertha Truitt, arrives mysteriously in Salford, Massachusetts, “a city hard north of Boston, with a sliver of coastline just big enough to ramshackle the houses and web the occasional foot.” Truitt—larger than life, “odd,” “full of joyful èlan,” of indeterminate age and accent—establishes Salford’s first candlepin bowling alley.

Bowlaway has an epic sweep but retains McCracken’s gimlet eye for idiosyncratic details. Her language is descriptive, colorful, yarn-y: characters possess “fubsy” feet and chifforobes; a woman’s prodigious bustline is “used, as a cat uses its whiskers, to gauge where she might fit”; a man “blinked like a circus bear; his hands were brown as paws.” Often, McCracken’s characters are those from whom polite society might shrink, or avert its eyes—they have wonky gaits, prosthetic limbs, unseemly yearnings—but McCracken puts them in her close, clear-eyed sights. Her characters build, and bowl, and break each others’ hearts.

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.

Love in Bowlaway is often unrequited, impractical, or uncomfortable. The human heart can all too easily be led into folly.

The bowling alley Bertha Truitt builds is high-ceilinged, with a wooden counter at the front “like a pulpit, with a spectacular cash register that looks ready to emit steam-powered music, a calliope of money.” It’s a modern, rather feminist place, in the early days of the 20th century. Truitt, who does not “wear the corset” (as it “confuses the organs”), also forgoes the modesty curtain often used to separate women bowlers from men. “What she wanted was a kind of greatness that women were not allowed.” But in fact bowling allows Bertha and the women of Salford a way to achieve some of that greatness: “Here is a ball. Heft it in your hand. Some man might call out with advice, too much advice, but in the end it’s your game to play and your game to win.”

Woman bowling (ca. 1900). William M. Vander Weyde / George Eastman House Collection

Equally unusual as Truitt is in Salford is Dr. Leviticus Sprague, whose unsettled neighbors have “never heard of a colored doctor before.” His interracial marriage with Truitt in 1900s Salford raises eyebrows further. Sprague and Truitt build an ornate gingerbread house to their own idiosyncratic specifications and have a daughter, Minna. Sprague dotes upon Minna, writing her poetry and teaching her to love books as he does. In two ways she is distinct from her mother: she dislikes the way the bowling alley distracts her from her reading, and she dislikes being “a curiosity” among the people of Salford. McCracken elegantly, subtly tells us the role race plays in this distinction: Sprague and Minna “had to be better. They had to keep their eccentricities to themselves.”

Truitt, unencumbered and unselfconscious, is free to “oddball around town all she liked,” and thus free, too, to be an early adopter of the Stanley Steamer, a steam-powered motorcar. “Machines! You shouldn’t love them, but Bertha did. The controls with which you lit the boiler, let the steam go; the hissing noise of it.” There’s a sense of exuberant liberation, as well as excitement, for the potential of modern technology. (Alas, Truitt’s enthusiasm for phrenology rather taints her claim to modernity, and permits her fondness for her motorcar to be viewed by her husband and by readers as just another superstition.)

Bertha’s advocacy for steam power echoes the crowds who marveled at Twain’s Mississippi steamboats. In his 1883 memoir, Life on the Mississippi, he described the town “drowsing” and “empty” before the daily arrival, “glorious with expectancy,” and then:

The scene changes! … In a twinkling … all go hurrying from many quarters to a common center, the wharf. Assembled there, the people fasten their eyes upon the coming boat as upon a wonder they are seeing for the first time. And the boat is rather a handsome sight, too. She is long and sharp and trim and pretty … The captain stands by the big bell, calm, imposing, the envy of all.2

Twain longed to learn “the science of piloting” a steamboat, with its “delightful play, vigorous play, adventurous play,” because “a pilot, in those days, was the only unfettered and entirely independent human being that lived in the earth.”3 Bertha Truitt feels unfettered indeed as she pilots her own steam vehicle, in spite of or because of the risks. The risks were real; Twain’s brother died in a steam explosion, and he portrayed a “monstrous” steamboat in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884): “big and scary, with a long row of wide-open furnace doors shining like red-hot teeth.”4 Truitt’s husband, Dr. Sprague, “thought cars of any sort about to explode, with malicious intent, at any time.”

New technologies are often met with this complex mixture of enthusiasm and fear: an apparent contradiction between our admiration for the shining new object and our apprehension about its implications for our own safety—and for our human exceptionalism. If a machine is capable of a human task, is humanity still primary?

Excerpt from diagram for the pinsetting machine, US Patent 2973204, filed November 25, 1955. Wikimedia Commons

Bowlaway’s historical span offers multiple contexts in which to consider this question, as technological developments and “progress” transform Salford and its citizens. The First World War robs the alley of pinboys, then returns its bowlers damaged; the Second binds young lovers in epistolary romance. As the novel proceeds, television shines a light on candlepin, and on one member of Salford’s next generation of Truitts. Boston’s famous molasses flood—the failure of an enormous holding tank that has long been an engineering case study—can seem absurd and implausible to modern students (could it be that hard to outrun molasses?), but feels inevitably part of a McCracken universe, and a fearsome one, when her characters encounter it. “The molasses had grip and intention,” McCracken writes, and instantly I—who have walked a thousand students through calculations of the built-up pressure in a molasses tank, and led countless discussions about safety factors, thermal effects, and regulated standards—can feel the horrible strength of the disaster.

Bertha’s successor at the alley keeps it afloat through the Depression, surviving “by its very cheapness” and through the addition of leagues, “money games,” and home-cooked food. The incorporation of shoe rental (coupled with disinfectant spray) transforms the game further. But as history and progress march on, they spell obsolescence for the bowling alley’s “pinbodies.”

In other alleys, the novel acknowledges, pinbodies are known as “pinboys” or “pinsetters,” but Bertha Truitt’s preferred term removes gender from the role and emphasizes the human, bodily work of quickly resetting felled pins for each new bowler and manually returning the ball to the players’ end of the alley. Truitt’s alley features a custom-built ledge where the pinbodies wait to leap into action. Human pinbodies lend a charm to the sport, as well as the potential for an unscrupulous or bribed pinbody to “fiddle the pins” and rig a game.

“It’s noble work, setting,” says Bowlaway’s Jeptha Arrison, Bertha Truitt’s “Captain of the Pinbodies.” “The pinbody’s the boss. … No bowler’s so good she can overcome a bad pinbody.” Though Jeptha’s oddly shaped head and general strangeness have alienated him from the rest of Salford, Truitt trusts him, and McCracken reveals his tactile, intuitive wisdom: “You set the pins fast as you can but part of the job is you must feel and feel the pins and balls, looking for wrongness. The cracked or wobble-footed. The chipped or unbalanced. Honor in bowling is the pinbody’s job.”

Pinbodies are good with their hands, they have a feel for the game, they do honorable work; it must’ve been beguiling to watch them dart about restoring order on the lane. They were sometimes injured by errant balls. “Hand-setting was back-breaking, dangerous work … a collaboration between two people.”

We might ask ourselves what we have done with the time we have saved when our leisure has been made more efficient.

With the midcentury invention and marketing of the mechanical, automated pinsetter (and the curtailing of child labor by the Fair Labor Standards Act), the pinbodies were no longer needed, for candlepin or for bowling’s tenpin or duckpin variants. At Bertha Truitt’s alley, “they had to break apart the pinsetters’ shelf to make room for the machinery. The sound of the cracking wood was the most violent thing [an adult pinsetter] had ever heard, like bones.” The automated pinsetter is an impressive mechanical system, even now, and it changed the game: “As many people came to see [the machinery] as the human bowlers.” But McCracken makes her readers nostalgic for the pinbodies, for the very irregularity, for their humanity.

Like other transformational mechanizations, the development of automatic pinsetters required the study and mimicry of the human processes it would replace.5 Scholars including Sigfried Giedion and William Braham have written about the paradox of construing mechanization as an outside force imposing something on mankind, when the machines are in fact constructed in our image (by human designers, at that). What happened to the best pinsetters, whose artful skills were duplicated, then replaced, by machines? Their contributions to the game are one of many losses mourned in Bowlaway.

Typically, we talk about the mechanization of human activities in terms of making work more efficient, in order to make more time available for leisure. But the automatic pinsetting machine was a mechanization of leisure itself. Something was lost, surely, as the game gained consistency, safety, and speed. The human “collaboration” between pinbody and bowler described by McCracken was no longer possible.

Something comparable has happened as we’ve programmed computers to play chess and card games. When we play against a computer, we miss out on connections with other human players, or with a card dealer. Even solitaire, when played on a computer, deprives the player of the tactile experience of shuffling and dealing the cards—though it streamlines and speeds the play, and makes the experience available to those who may not be able to shuffle or deal on their own. We might ask ourselves what we have done with the time we have saved when our leisure has been made more efficient.


Weeding Our Algorithmic Gardens

By Hallam Stevens

Computers are programmed to play, not to enjoy, human games. (Think of the 1983 film WarGames’ supercomputer, Joshua, who sees no point in playing without a chance of winning.) The narrowest of sociologist Joffre Dumazedier’s definitions of leisure activities requires that they yield “self-fulfillment.”6 We will have lost exactly what Mark Twain loved about his era’s transformational technology—“delightful play, vigorous play, adventurous play”—if we insist on algorithmically optimized leisure activities.

And what is more inefficient, more resistant to mechanical or algorithmic streamlining, than love?

Each of McCracken’s characters may break your heart in their own way, as fate and fear and longing “drip down through the generations.” They do find joy, but “the merriment was trained on a trellis of sorrow.” They bear their losses, and they live with unsolvable questions. Ghosts, hidden treasure, and lost wills and relatives are among Bowlaway’s mysteries. This reader would have loved to know more about Minna Truitt and hopes that McCracken is working on a companion novel that tells the rest of her story. But more than any particular person, McCracken’s subject is, as she announces, love. Whether the scattered pins are recovered by an agile pinbody or mechanically swept into an automated sorter, her characters hurl their hearts down the lanes over and over again. Then: blammo. icon

  1. Candlepin is so-named for its narrow, cylindrical pins. It is played with a smaller, lighter ball than tenpin bowling, and each player rolls three balls per frame (or “box,” as a candlepin player would call a frame). Downed pins are not cleared between balls, but remain where they fall as “dead wood” for the whole frame. “Dead wood can help you, if you know where to strike it,” but “if you hit it wrong, it can absorb all the momentum of the ball.”
  2. Mark Twain, Mississippi Writings (Library of America, 1982), pp. 253–54.
  3. Ibid., p. 313.
  4. Ibid., p. 717.
  5. See, for example, Sigfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command (Oxford University Press, 1948).
  6. Joffre Dumazedier, Sociology of Leisure, translated from the French by Marea A. McKenzie (Elsevier, 1974), p. 76.
Featured image: Pin boys working in Subway Bowling Alleys, Brooklyn, New York, April 1910 (detail). Photograph by Lewis Hine / Library of Congress