The Wayward Bus is the tenth Steinbeck book I’ve read, including some I have read multiple times. I tend not to think of him as too close to the very top of my favorite authors, but clearly I get something out of his work to have read that many of his books.
I consider this a very typical Steinbeck book. Which is not to say all his books have a sameness to them—The Moon is Down is set in Norway in World War II, The Pearl is about pearl divers in Mexico, Travels with Charley is nonfiction, etc.—but I think most readers of Steinbeck would know what I mean by a typical Steinbeck book. It’s set in Central California in the 1940s, the characters are mostly of the working class, there is more psychological character study than conventional action, and the bottom line is that for all their sins, errors and unappealing traits, if you really took the time to understand people and what has made them what they are, you’d find them to mostly be sympathetic folks.
The novel is set in a small town, but not really even a town. It’s basically a tiny restaurant that serves as a bus stop in an isolated area. The restaurant owner, Juan, doubles as the bus driver, serving short routes that Greyhound does not cover. Juan, his insecure, ill-tempered wife, and their two employees are apparently the only people who live there or anywhere near there. They are joined by a handful of travelers who make a temporary stop at the restaurant en route elsewhere. It’s a stop that has the potential to become much longer than anticipated though, since threatening weather leaves Juan and the passengers uncertain how safe it will be to drive the intended route in Juan’s beat-up old bus.
I suppose Juan is the main character if there is one, but really it’s more of an ensemble cast. It’s a series of vignettes, internal dialogues, and backstories that gives all the characters a chance to take the lead and reveal something about themselves.
Whether you like this book or not depends on how into Steinbeck’s psychology and sociology you are, because frankly for most of the novel very little happens. It reads like a long set-up, like the author wants you first to have something more than a perfunctory understanding of who these characters are before he sets them in motion. Once it gets going, there are indeed some suspenseful scenes, some moral dilemmas and such, but the bulk of the book is really more about getting to know who these folks are and what makes them behave the way they do and conflict with each other as they do.
I’m kind of in between on this book. I was never fully engrossed in the story, but I like Steinbeck’s style of psychological character analysis enough that I was generally at least somewhat interested.
There really are some nicely drawn, insightful portraits here. You gain a certain understanding of why an annoying know-it-all developed that kind of verbal style as a defense mechanism, for instance.
Then again, it’s not as if it’s all really deep stuff. Steinbeck has a tendency to make the psychology a little too neat and tidy, with direct, discoverable causes and effects (e.g., this character hates men because she’s a stripper who has seen them at their worst, this character is itching to wander and seek his fortune elsewhere because he feels tied down with a nagging, alcoholic shrew of a wife, etc.). Real life tends to be a lot more fuzzy, with complex networks of causes and effects impossible to get more than a minimal handle on.
I think The Wayward Bus is a worthwhile novel, but I wouldn’t put it among Steinbeck’s best.