Initially, "Liberty Lanes" was tough going. Perhaps because I, too, am in my late 70s, I found it difficult to be interested in an account of the sex life of a local geriatric male hero who was approaching senility. He was introduced with a group of his male and female cronies gathered together for a regular evening bowling alley social.
Robin Troy’s novel, a finalist in the 2012 High Plains Book Awards, was chock full of characters who, because their speech patterns lacked identifying features, were hard to distinguish from each other. I did learn that Nelson had recently freed a chicken bone from the gullet of Fran, a long-term female friend who otherwise might well have died. This extraordinary act was detailed by Nelson in conversation with Hailey, a female reporter from the Free Press, a local news sheet. I observed Nelson’s admiration of the young reporter (he in his 70s, she in her 30s), who, as the interview developed, felt drawn to him.
But, hold on. There is good news. As I dragged my way through the early chapters of the book, I was gradually pulled into the lives and situations of the rather ordinary cast of characters — Nelson, Bethany, Clarette, Hailey, Nate, Fran, Jim, Louis and Alistair (with brief appearances by Pearl, who befriends the blind Alistair, and Shoe, who presides over the disappearance of Fivemile, a run-down tavern scheduled to be replaced by a pizza house and laundromat). As my interest in these characters grew, I wondered if the title of the book should have been "Mixed Doubles," in which the players kept exchanging roles and partners.
At various times in his life, Nelson had been a special pal of Bethany and Fran. Fran had been a friend to Nelson. Clarette favored Louis. Alistair was supportive friends with Bethany and Pearl. Hailey admired Nelson and depended on Nate. And so forth and so on. Through the years of their bowling socials, Nelson served as a center, and a kind of ringleader, throwing parties for various occasions, injecting life into the lives of others. The novel reveals he was in mental decline, sometimes present with all of his faculties, sometimes losing track of who and where he was.
As I progressed through Troy’s novel, I discovered the book had no individual hero. Odd as the comparison may seem, I decided that Troy had attempted to accomplish a strategic feat analogous to that accomplished in "The Milagro Bean Field War" by making the whole bowling group the hero of the book. At various times and in various places, members of this peculiar little society took care of each other. Nelson helped Fran expel the chicken bone, but he also gave the group cohesion. In her effort to hold on to her youth through using Louis, Clarette bolstered his ego. As a fellow reporter, Nate acted as a realist, providing Hailey with necessary ground to prevent her from sailing off into romantic fantasies. In addition to retrieving Nelson from a potentially sticky situation with the local police, Bethany provided strength and support to Alistair, who apparently served as the group’s wise man. And, in a uniquely complicated and amusing effort to recapture her youth while at the same time recognizing she could not, Fran became a team captain for a community trying to preserve the existence of the Fivemile bar as a historic landmark. Simultaneously, she helped Nelson to focus as his mental deterioration set in, and brought herself into the present as a woman nearing eighty.
Which is all to suggest that a fundamental purpose for the group (and the book) was to deal with time itself, time construed as the contrast between age and youth, time construed as full of contingencies, time discovered as a process of getting real with life not as dreamed but as actually lived.
Randall Gloege taught English and philosophy at Montana State University Billings for 26 years. Before and during that period he also was a wilderness and environmental activist. For several years, he served as editor of "Alkali Flats." Currently, he is editor of an online publication called “The Pellucid Duck.”