33 Days after the John Steinbeck centenary and the epinions writeoff I organized to commemorate, Alex Fraser (as macresarf1) delivered the following.
Pros: Readable tale about Post-War Americans the next generation rebelled against: America as it was.
Cons: Slack writing and a weak plot.
The Bottom Line: THE WAYWARD BUS marks the beginning of Steinbeck’s decline in the eyes of critics, perhaps rightly so, though EAST OF EDEN lay before him. Interesting even when second rate.
When last I left you, we were at the corner of Mission and Valencia, staring at a white haired man through the front window of the Abandoned Planet Book Store. I had not planned to come there, but it occurred to me that the old man might have a copy of THE WAYWARD BUS by John Steinbeck. I had promised colleague Stephen Murray a review of the 1947 novel as part of a write-off he organized. The book was not in my collection, and as became discouragingly clear after several weeks, it was out of print and hard to find. Fortunately, this man had a copy. In fact, it was the only Steinbeck left on his shelf devoted to the California writer.
“Had a lot of his books,” he said. “All bought up around the time of his [100tth] birthday, about a month ago. No one seems to care much for this one.”
“I know,” I said, feeling a mixture of guilt and relief.
Thus, did I buy a stained copy of Steinbeck’s first Post War novel, one of his least successful, for $4.62. Coming away with it and a couple of copies of “Peace News” the man pressed upon me, I did not realize that dental problems and mechanical difficulties would further postpone this review.
Although I enjoyed THE WAYWARD BUS in the early 1950’s, I saw right away why the critics condemned it at the time. Steinbeck’s best work was always site specific, and detailed in fresh, supple language. However, his writings like THE PASTURES OF HEAVEN, IN DUBIOUS BATTLE, TORTILLA FLAT, OF MICE AND MEN, THE LONG VALLEY, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, and CANNERY ROW had made him enemies among certain individuals who thought he was writing about them, their homes and their lives. And so, after several years writing journalism and screenplays during the War, working on a big novel, EAST OF EDEN, he turned out THE WAYWARD BUS as a rather vague potboiling yarn about characters not native to Steinbeck Country.
First, I noticed that the novel is set somewhere on the edge of California’s great Central Valley, presumably near [north-south] Highway 99, or perhaps [east-west] Highway 152. It begins in a place Steinbeck has made up called Rebel Corners and goes on to refer to places like San Ysidro, perhaps San Francisco, and then San Juan de la Cruz, possibly Fresno. Never having been to California when I read THE WAYWARD BUS the first time, none of the geography bothered me much, but having lived out here many years now, on this re-reading, I was bothered where the action was taking me all the way through.
A group of travelers are stranded at Rebel Corners. They have presumably meandered down Highway One from San Francisco and hope Juan Chicoy’s independent bus line will take them east to Highway 101, hence south to San Juan de la Cruz, and to Los Angeles beyond, but that is never really clear. The bus, referred to as Rocinante, El Gran Poder de Jesus or Sweetheart, has broken down, a victim of “rear-end problems.”
Juan Chicoy, born of an Irish mother, “a magnificent mechanic,” is from the mountains of Mexico. His assistant, Pimples Carson, is one of those young men, in a tattered motorcycle sweater, “drawn southward toward Los Angeles and, of course, Hollywood, where eventually all the adolescents in the World will be congregated.” [Little did Steinbeck or fellow Americans know that Hollywood instead would make the rest of us adolescents, eternally so.] Alyce, Juan’s wife, who runs the lunch room, has a drinking problem, is depressed, and feels that she is aging and unattractive. She is helped behind the counter by Norma, a young woman who dreams only of going to Hollywood to meet Clark Gable (just returned from war service with the Eighth Air Force over Europe).
This is the America of just after World War II. Business is recovering from a recession. Young men are flooding back from the Armed Forces. Many women are beginning to strain over Pre-War strictures which are being re-imposed upon them. Teenagers like Pimples Carson want to be called Kit.
And a Babe Ruth candy bar is still a nickel.
Central among the travelers are the Pritchards, representing the heartland of America. Elliott Pritchard is a Chicago businessman, solidly Republican, who ironically looks like President Harry Truman. His wife Bernice, a dainty, constipated matron, has read somewhere that “travel is broadening.” The couple hate foreigners, but because their daughter Mildred has studied Spanish in college, Bernice has manipulated a wandering vacation to Mexico. Though Steinbeck does not mention it, the idea of utilizing Daughter Mildred as their interpreter anticipates “Togetherness,” which would become a dominant family theme of the era. The elder Pritchards do not know that, before the War, Mildred picketed ships taking scrap iron to Japan, and collected money to buy medical supplies for the Spanish Loyalists.
An ambiguous figure is Ernest Horton, a novelty salesman for the Little Wonder Company, who has two gold teeth, likes practical jokes, and who has been unluckily married — an experience he does not want to repeat. But later, Ernest is revealed as a Congressional Medal winner . . . seems to change character, and attracts Elliott Pritchard as the kind of young man who would be perfect for his company.
A fifth traveler, old Mr. Van Brunt, lives to the southeast, and he immediately establishes himself as hangdog. He does not trust Juan, he does not trust the bus, and he does not trust the weather.
It is spring in California, and it has been raining for a day and a night. Worries about two bridges between them and the Highway drive the action. Those worries are compounded by the entrance of Camille, who is brought by way of Greyhound and a superfluous subplot from San Ysidro to Rebel Corners. She is the sort of girl who immediately attracts the men under eighty, and polarizes most of the women.
By the time the bus at last pulls out of the Corners with nearly all the characters on board, over a third of this 312 page novel has been consumed.
The novelistic device of the doppelganger is much in evidence. There are two bus drivers, two jealous wives, two ardent swains, etc. The theme which emerges, dear to Steinbeck’s biologist heart, central to much of his work, is the question of how creatures can pull together, cooperate in maintaining their survival. We have seen it in The Grapes of Wrath, his propaganda novel The Moon is Down, and most starkly in his screen scenario for Hitchcock’s LIFEBOAT (1944).
THE WAYWARD BUS is well named because it grinds through rain and mud and lupines in the general direction of Hollywood, without saying very much about its symbolic destination. Its social consciousness is preserved by a rather daring for its time) bi-racial sexual encounter (between Juan and Mildred).
Not surprisingly, ten years later, the novel was made into what Leonard Maltin describes as a “low-brow” Cinemascope movie, directed by an obscure Franco-Russian director, Victor Vicas, with Joan Collins, Jayne Mansfield, Dan Dailey and Rick Jason. The movie was no more successful than the novel.
I am glad I re-read THE WAYWARD BUS. The experience showed me that my critical faculties have developed considerably in forty years, but I would not recommend the novel to anyone else.
However, I found that The Abandoned Planet Book Shop at 518 Valencia was, in its laid back way, quite a lively place.
All was not lost.
©2002, Alex Fraser