Literature is a young person’s game. From the initial writerly education to the preferred themes and tropes of contemporary readers—and the intense marketing of it all!—we are so steeped in literary youth culture that it is surprising and a little suspicious when someone dares focus on “mature” characters and subject matter. Robin Troy’s Liberty Lanes is a novel about old people. That in and of itself is significant. However, it is also a curious, charming, and insightful look at the sunset years and is noteworthy for more than its characters’ ages.
“Mature” in this case is meant in the chronological sense, not in terms of controversy. After all, not much happens in Liberty Lanes that could be called shocking. It is mainly, simply, the story of a group of elder friends who have gathered at a Montana bowling alley for decades. One night a ringleader named Nelson saves friend (and old flame) Fran from choking on a chicken-wing bone. The novel is the story of how the group acts and reacts in the days and weeks that follow. Issues of mortality, love, and loyalty are examined—and re-examined—in light of the event. While the story runs mainly through Nelson, the power of story-telling is discussed throughout the book: by a young reporter named Hailey who is drawn to Nelson’s curious lack of ego; by Fran, who interprets Nelson’s actions and subsequent newspaper quotes as a desire to rekindle old passions; by Bethany, who recognizes that the spotlight now on Nelson will either cover up or lay bare his early stages of dementia; and by Alastair, whose blindness helps him to “see” changing dynamics that others in the group cannot. Though the reporter Hailey is young, she is not used as a literary foil: she is no more certain of what comes next in her life than the older characters are in theirs. While some are concerned about how Hailey might affect the group’s easy sociality, in truth her sudden inclusion (at Nelson’s invitation) works in a surprising way: through Hailey, members of the group realize that their stories require no backdrop or embellishment, that at their ages they are past the need for justification of desires, and that Liberty Lanes is, above all, “a place where life goes on” (20).
Hailey’s initial assumption that to be old is “to have yourself figured out” is challenged at every turn by this complex group of friends—most in their seventies—whose dysfunctions feel familiar except that they are illuminated by death rather than standard middle-aged idols of fortune and fame (45). Certainly, Troy’s characters are informed by Sharon Kaufman’s research into the “ageless self,” but they are also tempered by mileage, experience, and hard-won wisdom. Nelson puts it this way: “Maybe the reason people changed and places didn’t was that people knew, every day, they were going to die. It wasn’t something he’d thought about before, but the moment the thought hit him, it struck him as unfair” (108). [End Page 472]
It is interesting that some of the best American novels about old age have come from western writers. Stegner’s Crossing to Safety (1987) comes to mind; and Hemingway caught magic in The Old Man and the Sea (1952). To be accurate, Liberty Lanes seems to be a book barely about the West. Other than a few daytrips into the Montana landscape, most of its events could probably have been set almost anywhere—and that’s a measure of the book’s universality. Troy’s novel is most significant because it is a story about older people contemplating their future while negotiating their present. Youth, while beautiful and energetic, represents the past and, in the case of the characters of Liberty Lanes, need not always apply.