Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig

 
In a "Note to Readers" on the website for writer Ivan Doig, the author mildly rails against being pigeonholed as a "Western" writer. "If I have any creed that I wish you as readers, necessary accomplices in this flirtatious ceremony of writing and reading, will take with you from my pages, it’d be this belief of mine that writers of caliber can ground their work in specific land and lingo and yet be writing of that larger country: life."
 
For me, Doig has always been one of the great American storytellers. I was saddened to learn that he passed away during April of this year. But he left behind a wonderful novel that does him totally proud: The Last Bus to Wisdom (Riverhead, 2015). Doig came from humble beginnings in Montana. His parents were sharecroppers, his grandmother a ranch cook. In a You Tube "Authors Road" interview with Doig, I learned of these and other similarities between the author and his Last Bus to Wisdom protagonist, Donal Cameron. Both had red hair and loved comic books. Both spent time on Indian reservations. Both had an affinity for language. And yes, The Last Bus to Wisdom found its start in Doig's memories of a cross country bus trip he took in 1951.

And within its pages, I found a similarity between myself and eleven year-old Donal. We both loved our grade school autograph books. Bussed to Manitowac, Wisconsin for a summer while his grandmother has major surgery, Donal loves to pass that autograph book around and collect witticisms. In fact, he wants to collect so many that his astonishing collection might hopefully become a Ripley's Believe It or Not! newspaper story. Donal is not shy about offering the book to a wide assortment of people he meets on the Greyhound bus and other places his summer of adventure takes him: waitresses, hoboes, rodeo stars and -- believe it or not -- even Jack Kerouac, pictured here as a manic midnight bus rider (closing his signature with: "On the road somewhere south of the moon and north of Hell...").

When Donal gets to Wisconsin, he quickly sours on the company of his bossy, mean-spirited Aunt Kate. Luckily, he rather enjoys the company of his German-speaking Uncle Herman. But moping around their home, Donal fears for his future. If his grandmother dies, he might end up in an orphanage or poorhouse. Beyond this point in the novel, wherein Aunt Kate has a meltdown and puts Donal back on the bus, things really heat up. No need for me to spill the beans about what happens, but trust me -- thus forth, readers are in Great American Road Story country. Okay, one hint: Uncle Herman goes along for the ride and before two long both of them become true desperadoes. This unlikely pair face toil and trouble with much wit and imagination.

I count this as one of the best books I've read this year. The Last Bus To Wisdom reads like a classic, in the vein of Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Doig typed this and all his other books on a typewriter! For me, it is bittersweet that his last book has that very word "last" in its title. At first I found the title a bit odd because I was taking it too literally. There actually is a census-designated place called Wisdom, Montana (2010 Census data population:115), now forever immortalized in Doig's old-fashioned, yet fresh and frisky novel.

PS: Here is my beloved autograph book and one of the silly sayings on its pages. I recently enjoyed getting together with three childhood girlfriends, and oh, how we howled reading through its (mostly silly) pages.