There is something doubly apt about the title of George Bowering’s memoir. On the one hand, it recalls a bygone era, one when people actually bowled regularly, moreover, one when the bowling pins were still reset by hand. On the other hand, a bowling pin is a duly phallic symbol for a memoir that primarily dwells on the obsessions of a fifteen-year-old boy growing up in the Okanagan Valley, Oliver to be precise, in the 1950s.
I am of two minds when it comes to Pinboy. Fifteen is an age that many of us remember acutely. As Bowering puts it, “I still remember the score of the first game of the 1948 World Series, but I can’t tell you right off who won the World Series in 1999.” For me, a generation younger, I could tell you the Phillies’ starter in Game One of the 1980 World Series, but I’m not sure I know who started Game One for the Giants this year. It makes sense to tell of the days we remember best, the days hard-wired into our brains.
The drawback is that fifteen-year-old boys are not terribly interesting. Everything is about sex, almost all of the time. For the young Bowering, even the landscape could be “eroticized,” and he recalls a mountain range near Okanagan Falls that “looked like the profile of the firm and sumptuous breasts of two young women lying on their backs.” A little of this goes a long way, and, unfortunately, there is an awful lot of this sort of objectification, sometimes of landscapes, more often women. He details Doukhabour mothers and daughters picking fruit, female teachers in the classroom or in their bowling leagues, comely and not-so-comely classmates. Almost all teenage boys are sex-focused, and Bowering seems to have been precociously priapic. However, it is genuinely hard to imagine a woman relating to this book, unless she perhaps has a teenage son and wants a document of the genus to refer to.
I found I liked Pinboy most when Bowering was writing about his interest in a girl from the proverbial “wrong side of the tracks.” In telling the story of his philanthropic concern for Jeanette MacArthur, he employs the tropes of the dimestore pulp he read when he was young, seeing himself as a detective on the trail of a local mystery. In several places here, there is genuine suspense and the memoir becomes much more compelling. This is the part of the book that will stay with me.
And Bowering’s love of books and writing also frames some of Pinboy’s best passages. Criticized as a boy for reading too much—“Why the hell don’t you live life instead of reading about it?”—Bowering is able to retort that reading “gave me two lives running at the same time. Why would anyone turn that down?” Surely that is as pithy a defense of reading as has been uttered.
Yes, there is a lot to like about Pinboy, and for the most part I enjoyed the book. At the same time, though, it did feel too often like a very repetitive tour of a not terribly interesting mind. I suppose that in memoirs, as in life, one takes the bad with the good, and in the end Bowering’s self-indulgence is outweighed by his charm and honesty.