The Wayward Bus

Summer is here so it’s time to read some more Steinbeck. The Wayward Bus is one of his lesser known novels, probably not helped by the fact that he was rather prolific throughout his career and this one came on the heels of the very popular Cannery Row. All the usual tropes of Steinbeck’s American realism are there, but he does something a little different with them this time.

At a remote Californian crossroads known as Rebel Corners stands a café run by Juan Chicoy and his wife Alice. From there Juan’s rickety old bus takes people to the nearest Greyhound stop, where they can head north towards Los Angeles or south into Mexico. Along with their handyman Kit (more commonly known as Pimples) and their waitress Norma, the Chicoys are the only permanent residents at Rebel Corners. Everyone else is transient.

After catching Alice going through her belongings, Norma decides to head to Los Angeles herself. On this bus journey is a stripper who dreams of being a star, travelling under a name she stole from a poster on the wall; a lonely travelling salesman trying to hawk novelties such as fake injured feet; and a family travelling to Mexico at the wife’s behest – she doesn’t really want to go to Mexico, she just wants to be able to tell people she has been.

It starts out like any other day for Juan Chicoy, driving the bus, but rain has flooded the river and made the bridge he needs to cross unsafe. Faced with the choice of going back the way they came, or heading off along a dirt road that may or may not get them where they want to go, Juan does something he has never done before.

It’s not just the people who are transient in this story. There’s a vaguely apocalyptic feel to the novel, as if half the characters on the wayward bus have nowhere really to go, and the other half will probably never get where they want to go anyway. Steinbeck’s not uncommon solemnity is again somewhat disguised by his playfulness with his characters and his lack of judgementalism towards the mores of real people. He might belabour the point, however, about the artificiality of most of the passengers, and how they are lying to themselves as well as everyone else.

There’s a cynicism to many of the characters (or at least their private thoughts) that I don’t remember being so apparent in many of Steinbeck’s other, more hopeful novels. There’s also a brazen lustfulness about them all that he glossed over before (and this was a man denounced as a pornographer for the final page of The Grapes of Wrath, remember). It might be appropriate to look at what was going on in Steinbeck’s life at the time of writing – they were the twilight days of his short-lived marriage to his second wife, who had given him children, but whose attentions had started to wander.

In the middle of the novel is a reference to the Trasks. It’s just there to add a bit of colour to this book, but of course, the Trasks are central characters in the big novel Steinbeck started writing not long after The Wayward Bus was published – East of Eden. I’m running out of Steinbeck novels to read now, but I’m leaving that one until last.