The Wayward Bus (Penguin Classics)
by John Steinbeck
Reviewed by Jeremy Garber
As Steinbeck wrote the first synopsis of The Wayward Bus in Spanish, he had originally chosen El Camion Vacilador as the book's title. He writes, "the word vacilador, or the verb vacilar, is not translatable unfortunately, and it's a word we really need in English because to be vacilando means that you're aiming at some place, but you don't care much whether you get there. We don't have such a word in English. Wayward has an overtone of illicitness or illegality, based of course on medieval lore where wayward men were vagabonds. But vacilador is not a vagabond at all. Wayward was the nearest English word that I could find." It is a shame that there exists no English equivalent for vacilador, as it truly is the most apt word to describe the novel's (as well as the bus's) trajectory.
It has been noted elsewhere (even somewhat extensively) that The Wayward Bus is one of Steinbeck's lesser or minor works. While it, indeed, may not be as well known as some of his other novels, it's a resounding piece of literature, one which surely ranks among his best. With a cast of characters rivaling any of Steinbeck's other books and little plot to speak of, The Wayward Bus relies on the development of these characters and their interactions with one another. The real brilliance of the story, however, is Steinbeck's rich, precise use of language and the tale's naturalistic effect. The author himself writes,
This book depends on mood, on detail and on all the little factors of writing for its effectiveness. It has practically no story....it is what I wanted to say and I think it is in there for anyone who really wants to find it and there's a top story for those who don't....It will be called simple character study and that is only the littlest part of what it is.
Though there may be "practically no story," that certainly isn't to say that simply nothing happens, for there is no small amount of interpersonal tension and emotional upheaval.
As in many of Steinbeck's other books, the characters are portrayed in a most unsentimental manner. Yearning for something just beyond their reach, many of them see their hopes frustrated, yet refuse to accept them as mere illusory pipe dreams. The men and women that populate Steinbeck's novels are often improbably authentic, neither saints nor sinners, but, rather, reflections of the way human beings actually are, have been, and shall continue to be, throughout ages and across oceans. In his works, we are left with the sense that we are, circumstance notwithstanding, the stewards of our own fate, and that neither pride nor guilt shall absolve us of our accountability. As he said during his banquet speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize:
We have usurped many of the powers we once ascribed to god. Fearful and unprepared, we have assumed lordship over the life or death of the whole world of all living things. The danger and the glory and the choice rest finally in man. The test of his perfectibility is at hand. Having taken godlike power, we must seek in ourselves for the responsibility and the wisdom we once prayed some deity might have. Man himself has become our greatest hazard and our only hope.