Within the narrative nonfiction, there is a wide range of genres, including, but not limited to: history, profiles, reported essays, investigative reports, and longform features. And then you occasionally get something like this, which is harder to classify, other than that it’s simply a great story.
The Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever by Michael J. Mooney in D Magazine reads like a fictional short story, but it’s true.
Photo by Tadd Myers
The story centers on Bill Fong, an amateur bowler, and the night he had a shot at perfection. One thing makes the story work is that Mooney takes his time introducing Fong as a character and shows us why his one night of greatness would matter so much to him. The background gives the reader empathy for Fong and a reason to feel invested:
Aside from bowling, Bill Fong hasn’t had a lot of success in life. His Chinese mother demanded perfection, but he was a C student. He never finished college, he divorced young, and he never made a lot of money. By his own account, his parents didn’t like him much. As a bowler, his average in the high 230s means he’s probably better than anyone you know. But he’s still only tied as the 15th best bowler in Plano’s most competitive league. Almost nothing in life has gone according to plan.
He likes to say he got his approach to bowling from the hard-hitting alleys in his native Chicago, where he went to high school with Michelle Obama. He was one of the few kids from Chinatown interested in bowling at the time. Despite his strict mother and the fact that his friends were all on the honor roll, little William preferred sports. He dreamed of being a professional athlete one day. He wasn’t big—too short for basketball, too slender for football—but he’d run up and down the block as a boy, racing imaginary friends.
When Fong was young, his parents divorced. He remembers the man who would become his stepdad taking his mom out on dates to a local bowling alley, where they could bring the kids. He noticed that when he was bowling, he wasn’t thinking about whatever was going on behind him. His mind could focus on the ball, the lane, the pins—and the rest of the world would disappear.
A second thing that makes this story work is that it’s just told very well. It’s dramatic, suspenseful, and written with visual details that give the reader a sense of how it looked and sounded at the Plano Super Bowl that memorably night.
The story reads like a real-life sports movie, with the underdog, underachieving Fong having the night of his life. He throws strike after strike, edging closer to a nearly impossible perfect night:
As he sent strike after strike down the lanes, he began to feel magical. Literally, the way he was commanding the balls to turn and burrow into the unsuspecting pins, it felt a little like he was moving heavy objects with only the power of his mind. In the fourth frame, both the seven and the 10 pins stayed up just a bit longer than he wanted. As he gestured with both arms, they fell. Something similar happened in the eighth frame.
“It was like Moses parting the sea,” he says. “I’d move my hands and everything would get out of the way.”
The drama builds and the pressure mounts as Fong gets closer and closer to hitting a level perfection to a degree than only a few bowlers have achieved. It leads to a tense, dramatic climactic moment and a surprising twist at the end.
Each time he approached the lane, the entire bowling alley went silent. Every time he let fly another roll, there were audible moans from strangers and shouts from the crowd: “That’s it, baby!” Each time he struck, the room erupted with applause. In all his life, Bill Fong had never heard anyone cheering him like that.
As a sports fan (and a sucker for good sports movies) one thing I’ve always loved is the chance to witness someone else’s greatest moment, a transcendant performance that will be remembered forever. And if that person is an underdog, even better. There’s something powerful about the idea that someone is chasing their dream, overcoming fears and adversity, and giving everything they have. Sports can crystallize those moments, focus them down to a single swing or shot or throw, or, in this case, a roll.
No spoilers here, other than to say that you should read this great story.