Quinn Dalton’s second novel Midnight Bowling is more than just a teenage love story. A skillfully written young adult crossover, Midnight Bowling uses parallel memoirs to recount two romances as well as one coming-of-age story. Middle-aged Leo Florida owns The Galaxy, Sandusky’s timeworn bowling alley where Tess Wycheski’s father teaches her how to bowl a perfect strike. Tess’s father, Joe Wycheski, was once a pro bowling wannabe, and Leo was the coach who abandoned him and skipped town after Joe choked at his first and last major bowling tournament. Leo never explained his reasons for leaving, and Joe never asked. Joe gave up bowling until ultimately deciding he needed to pass his love for the game on to Tess. Like her father, Tess comes to appreciate the art of bowling and to strive relentlessly for perfection in the sport.
Unlike her mother, a devout Christian who “had never once gone bowling,” Tess regarded bowling as her “religion.” Tess and her father share their quasi-religious devotion to bowling with Leo and his nephew, Donny. Through both Tess and Leo’s retrospective accounts of love, despair, and sacrifice, the reader is able to piece together their complicated and intertwined histories. Tess and her father come to share not only a passion for bowling, but also a common view of the world. Both Wycheskis see bowling as an art form to explore and to try to refine, rather than a mere means to victory. Similar to the ways in which Tess comes to mirror her father, Donny turns out to be far more like his uncle than he ever realized. Both Tess and Donny will have to choose if they want to be like the men who have influenced them or if they want to chart their own course; they must decide when individual desire ought to come before loyalty, family, and sentiment. Joe, Leo, Tess and Donny each have to decide if they should let go of their pasts and if they can accept uncertain futures.
In addition to the brilliant dual narration and skillfully developed characters, Dalton interweaves complicated and timeless subplots into the narrative. While the timeframe is not always clear and the reader may not necessarily feel the setting and time, the endurance of Dalton’s themes solidifies the story’s contemporary applicability. One of the ways in which the narrative’s timeframe is clear is in that the legacy and shame of the Vietnam War loom over the Florida family, and presumably over the community as a whole. The community grieves when they believe Leo’s brother, Walt, was killed in Vietnam. According to Leo, the town was so distraught that “You didn’t have a town more ready to get into the jungle.” While skillfully representing America’s cultural and societal response to both past and contemporary wars, Dalton also shows that the realities of life and death haunt each character in the story, whether they acknowledge their pain or delude themselves into forgetting. Dalton’s unquestionably flawed and human characters make the sometimes-unclear setting irrelevant; whether we are in Sandusky in 1980 or somewhere else entirely, the main characters’ stories are universal.
Dalton utilizes the detailed accounts of multiple significant interrelated characters in order to give the reader a look into all of the possibilities that lay ahead of Tess. She can refuse to accept less than perfection like her father, or she can blindly chase an unrealistic kind of perfection like her mother. She can devote herself to the love and family she already has, or she can find her own path to happiness. Tess’s journey runs deeper than the typical path to adulthood; while she does face and rise above pressure to be like her popular best friend, Chelsea, she also stares an uncertain future in the face and learns when to let go. By the end of the novel, the reader is satisfied to know not only what Tess ultimately chooses for her life, but also to catch a glimpse of the multiple other lives she might have lived. Tess’s account of her teen years means she may be a role model to the younger reader, a peer to the young adult reader, or a fond memory of what once was and what could have been for the adult reader. Like Tess, all readers can look back at the way their hometown has “changed and not changed, the way a place that lives inside you does.” Tess and Leo are characters whose stories are relatable enough to elicit an almost nostalgiac feeling in the hearts and minds of any reader.
by Quinn Dalton
Carolina Wren Press, March 2016
Paperback, 263pp. $17.95