The Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck. Viking Press (1947), 312 pp.
Juan Chicoy, a true man’s man of about fifty, manages a small stop-over for travelers on a main north-south highway in the San Joaquin Valley. With the help of his acne-laden assistant, Pimples Carson, he handles the gas pumps and garage, while his blowsy wife Alice runs the grocery store and lunchroom. Her latest helper is Norma, who dreams of a glamorous life in Hollywood. Juan also drives a decrepit bus on a daily fifty-mile run over the hills to a town on Highway 101 near the coast. Yesterday the vehicle broke down, stranding three passengers on their way to Mexico -- businessman Elliott Pritchard, his passive-aggressive wife Bernice, and his college-student daughter Mildred -- and a novelty salesman, Ernest Horton, heading for L. A. Juan has got the bus running again, but a spring rainstorm threatens to make the journey hazardous.
This is an excellent example of a realistic character-driven novel. There’s some element of suspense as the trip gets underway. Something will happen to the beat-up bus on the trip, but readers won’t know what. Mostly, though, Steinbeck focuses on the travelers, which he expands with a hot blonde and a grumpy codger. His narrator gets into everyone’s head yet does not refrain from analysis and judgment. The characters are meant to be ordinary folks living small lives. All are limited in one way or another, and Steinbeck expects little from them. Still, each has hopes and concerns, and each changes as the story unfolds. Some readers may find the Chaucerian set-up formulaic and the inclusion of so many young women implausible. Yet the novel reads easily and (despite a few digressions) holds together well. It was a best-seller in 1947 and still warrants an audience today.