Mar 15, 12
Read from March 12 to 15, 2012
I wrote a novel once about a group of passengers on a bus and found it a good vehicle (pardon the pun) to pack a mix of human emotions, shake them up and allow for some (but not all) resolution and learning in the end. The journey provides movement, the juxtaposition of passengers in the close confines of the bus allows for an in-your-face scrutiny of their character and inter-relationships, and the introduction of external threat exposes their vulnerabilities and strengths. And so it is with The Wayward Bus as the title suggests – another bus story with all of the above.
The only problem here is that the bus does not commence its journey until way after the first 100 pages and so the movement is provided by Steinbeck bopping in an out of each character as they sit it out in the bus station at Rebel Corners in California, waiting for the old bomb to get roadworthy. Once the bus gets underway after its homemade repair job, the inclement weather forces it to take a route less travelled and bog down in a muddy stretch of a unused road (the only external threat), forcing the characters to make choices and face up to themselves and their values, even though help is only four miles away. Without having to introduce bandits and other extreme threats to spice up the plot (like I did in my novel), Steinbeck is able to show us that we are our own worst enemy.
The cross section of society that gets on board as passengers is interesting. A corporate executive who only moves with people like himself, a war-vet novelty salesman who is suspicious of corporate promises, a table top dancer who has had too many disappointing relationships, a wannabe actress dreaming of a relationship with Clark Gable, a spoilt-brat rich daughter who is panting to get laid and her equally pampered mother who does not lay anymore even with her husband, a pimply youth who has difficulty containing his sexual urges and wants to lay all the women on board the bus, a dying man who sees a problem in every opportunity – make up the payload. The driver is fifty-year old Juan, a half breed Irish-Mexican, who, despite being chased by gringo women, sticks around with his alcoholic American wife because she is the only one who makes proper beans north of the Rio Grande.
Steinbeck brings out some home truths: Honesty and thrift do not work in a post-WWII America, men of whatever age will always chase attractive younger women, business is not about using good grammar but about what you can produce, inventors are most likely to get squeezed by their corporate exploiters, spouses sometimes invent illnesses to control the other, the young will always have stardust in the eyes, and civilization is only skin deep.
This is not one of his better novels, and I was disappointed in the constantly shifting viewpoints, rendering the characters like puppets under the control of Master Puppeteer Steinbeck. Nothing much is resolved either; we just get an insight into a cross-section of American society in the late 1940’s when the difference between the sexes was wide as the Grand Canyon, and whether that was reality or Steinbeck’s bias is debatable. The redeeming features are the descriptions of the Californian landscape and the vagaries of Mother Nature, which Steinbeck describes superbly.
In the end I was glad that I had written my bus novel long before reading this book and was thereby spared its influence during my writing.