The increasing trouble with stunt memoirs is a crippling self-awareness. It was once conceivable that someone would want to see a film a day (Kevin Murphy's A Year At The Movies) or go undercover as a prison guard (Ted Conover's Newjack) just for his own personal edification, even if no one was watching. But then came 2005's Julie & Julia, in which a major plot point is the author affecting shock at the attention her project is getting; in the bestselling Eat Pray Love, the book deal is an open precondition of the adventure, not a byproduct of joyous self-discovery.
Author Mike Walsh is upfront from the start about his attempts to publicize the trip described in Bowling Across America: 50 States In Rented Shoes, perhaps because he used to work in advertising. The trip is intended as an homage to his late father—a former traveling salesman who dreamed of playing handball in every state, but died on the court at home with 22 left—but Walsh taps into his former employment as a Wienermobile driver to get himself on local radio shows, and he eventually scores a beer-company sponsor, whose frequent mention in the book suggests he should have held out for more money. His subsequent adventures range from losing to a bunch of old ladies as a substitute in a Kansas senior citizens' league to his encounter with a Florida man whose own dad died in a bowling alley. In New York, Walsh forks over $20 to play at the exclusive Bowlmor; in other states, he picks destinations apparently at random, begging an Elks Lodge in Wyoming for access to members-only lanes and crashing at a B&B; in wine country with his mom.
In spite of its funereal opening, Bowling Across America coasts along seamlessly state-by-state as Walsh barges into other people's lives, drinks too much, and leaves with huge debts of gratitude to the friends and acquaintances who put him up. His conceit about bowling alleys being a great place to watch people, and Americans in particular, is upheld by the stories he tells; his transparency becomes charming when layered with a willingness to listen to the locals instead of just using them as foils. Because he doesn't aim to be a better bowler, or even a better man, the objective becomes merely to make it to Hawaii, which keeps his narrative pitch on the level of a wacky '60s caper.