Bowling Across America
A debut by a Chicago resident, Mike Walsh
St. Martin’s Press; $23.95
At age 27, Mike Walsh suffered an early midlife crisis. He was bored with his job at a Chicago ad agency. Then his father died. While going through the old man’s possessions, Walsh found a map marking all the states where he had played handball. It was incomplete. So Walsh decided to take up the challenge himself, with his own spin. He’d bowl in all 50 states.
Every road trip book is also a quest for something bigger than the journey itself. This is the point in the review where I’m supposed to write that Bowling Across America isn’t really about bowling. That it’s about a son connecting with his dead father, or a citified man learning to appreciate small-town life. OK. Bowling Across America isn’t really about bowling. But it’s not about anything that poignant, either. It’s about marketing.
As an adman, Walsh knows the best way to promote a product is to put it in the hands of an attractive young person. Also, he used to drive the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, so he knows how to get publicity for a cross-country stunt. In the opening chapters, when he travels through the media-rich East, his pursuit of publicity provides the book’s drama. Will Walsh nail his appearance on The Caroline Rhea Show? (He does.) Will he score a corporate sponsorship? (Yes, indeed. Miller High Life ponies up $8,500. All Walsh has to do is work the phrase “I’m living the high life!” into interviews.)
The book needs this hook, because Walsh doesn’t seem to care much for bowling or bowlers. He rarely writes about his technique or his scores. At the American Bowling Congress in Milwaukee, he cracks that he thought “the only skill in bowling was pouring the beer from the pitcher without making too much foam.” In Grand Rapids, he goes to an alley where the lighting is “just low enough so that even bowlers look attractive.”
Bowling Across America begins to feel as condescending and exploitive as Borat, or a Michael Moore movie—a yuppie jackass getting famous by taking a sociological Dumpster dive among people he considers so fat, ugly, and awkward they’re only fit to exercise indoors. But Walsh’s book is saved by another truism of road trips. They’re lonely.
Out West, Walsh has no friends to crash with, no TV reporters to court, and endless drives between alleys. Starved for companionship, he begins to appreciate the sense of community bowlers find in their alleys. And he listens to their stories. At Chili Bowl Lanes, in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, the owners built a shrine to their son, killed in a car accident on the way home from a bowling tournament. In Oklahoma, Walsh bowls with a quartet called the “Old Guys,” who reminisce about World War II and marriages more than twice the author’s age. Walsh’s bowling never improves—in Kansas, a 98-year-old woman beats him 190-110—but he definitely learns something on the road, and it’s more than just how to turn a high-concept vacation into a book deal.
Edward McClelland is the author of Horseplayers: Life at the Track, a memoir of a year spent at the races, and The Third Coast, a Great Lakes travelogue.
Photograph: (Bowling Across America) Blackbox Studios, Inc.