My rating: 8/10
I am gradually coming to terms with the fact that there is no way I can do full justice to the books I read in the manner in which they deserve. Even the most dismal of the period pieces I willingly engage myself in are worthy of a fuller discussion than I am able to provide in the limited discretionary time this writing-for-pleasure blog inhabits in my current lifestyle.
So rather than wallowing in guilt about not being able to go on for thousands of words regarding each and every one (yes, I tend to be long-winded at the keyboard or pen in hand, something I paradoxically rather enjoy in others and quietly deplore in myself) I’m going to be all firm with myself and try to pop out hyper-condensed “reaction pieces” to more things – reviewlets, as I think we were all calling them in a similar discussion on someone else’s writing space not that long ago.
Did you get through all that? More posts. Less words each.
Yeah, and I would decide to start with Steinbeck, an eminently discussable author. (In other words, “Ha!” to the short-and-pithy reviewlet. I predict I won’t be able to get out of this one quick-and-easy, though I’m going into it with the best of intentions.)
I like Steinbeck. Generally quite a lot. As do many others, so musings on his books (especially the headliner titles) are easy as pie to come by, thereby releiving the johnny-come-lately book blogger to get away with minimal effort, for what else really can one add? There are a fair number of reviews out there for this book, for though The Wayward Bus isn’t one of the Big Important Novels, it’s reasonably mainstream, and a rather decent example of what the man was capable of at his best.
Juan Chicoy, a competent, handsome, humorous, middle-aged, Mexican-Irish-American mechanic-philosopher type, runs a small gas station and lunch counter at a fictional spot-on-the-road in southern California. He is aided in this by his perpetually bitter, frequently angry, and not particularly attractive (or kind) wife Alice. He loves her and stays with her (though opportunities abound for moving on with others more attractive – Juan is rather a fine figure of a man both physically and intellectually) for deep and complicated reasons, not the least of which being that no one else likes her.
Alice in turn loves Juan, single-mindedly and jealously, and his easy manner with all and sundry triggers much inner turmoil which generally leads to her making a fool of herself, ranting away at the easiest targets in the room.
Those targets at this point in time are the Chicoy employees, teenage apprentice-mechanic Ed (“Kit”) Carson, more commonly called “Pimples” for obvious reasons – he has a truly stellar acne affliction, which Steinbeck spells out for us in some detail – and young waitress Norma, a shy and homely type who nourishes a secret infatuation for Clark Gable.
Among his other endeavours, Juan owns and operates an old bus, one “Sweetheart”, under contract with Greyhound to provide a shuttle service along a secondary road between two official main-highway stops. This is the literary device which is used to assemble the cast of players who people this novel, a disparate assembly of travellers who walk in with their backstories, bump against each other for the twenty-fours hours or so which Steinbeck describes in vivid detail, before dispersing again into the wider world.
When the titular bus finally hits the road, approximately half way through the novel, its passengers consist of a successful businessman, his prissy, sexually frigid wife, their athletic university-student daughter, a travelling “novelty products” salesman, a beautiful, sexually arousing stripper masquerading for purposes of peaceful travel as a “dental nurse”, a cranky rural rancher type who hates absolutely everybody, Pimples/Kit, who begs to come along ostensibly to help in case Sweetheart breaks down, but in reality in order to bask in the presence of the delectable stripper, and Norma, who has just quit her job after being seriously wronged and insulted by outspoken Alice.
Alice herself stays behind, locking up the lunchroom and then losing herself deeply in a series of bottles, a process thoughtfully and rather compassionately described by our author.
Each person in this random cast of players faces an inner crisis of sorts during their short journey, and the resulting interconnected character studies make up the novel.
Steinbeck makes no secret of who he sympathizes with and who he despises, and he uses his authorial powers to both reward and punish his pen-and-ink creations, leading us ultimately to a glimpse into the philosophical leanings of Steinbeck himself.
Good stuff, and a stellar example of John Steinbeck’s mastery of his particular genre, the “gritty American realism” school of writing, as I always think of it with just a hint of a lifted eyebrow. He knew exactly how good he was, too, and here he shows off his literary erudition by prefacing what is merely a humble road trip novel with a quotation from a 14th Century English morality play, Everyman:
I praye you all gyve audyence,
And here this mater with reverence,
By fygure a morall playe;
The somonynge of Everyman called it is,
That of our lyves and endynge shewes
How transytory we be all daye.
Or, put into slightly more modern English:
I pray you all give audience,
And hear this matter with reverence,
By figure a moral play;
The Summoning of Everyman called it is,
That of our lives and ending shows
How transitory be our days.
The Wayward Bus is, as its author points out, a contemporary morality play. Though it is decidedly a thing of its time, immediately post-war America, angst-ridden and brutally pessimistic and, also, cautiously optimistic, the personal dilemmas of its characters remain relatable today, some seven decades onward.
Note to self: re-read Steinbeck. My father’s personal library, now mine, included most of John Steinbeck’s novels and memoirs; I read these voraciously as a teenager and young adult, though not as much in recent years. There’s a lot to appreciate here, though occasionally the grit gets in one’s eyes.