The passage that hooked this reviewer came early in Ivan Doig’s delightful sprawl of a novel. It was that song about “great green gobs of greasy, grimy gopher guts,” sung on a bus by obnoxious little boys off to summer camp. Having not heard that song in years and years, it simply warmed my heart. How could this book not be a keeper?
Last Bus to Wisdom is told by an orphan. He’s Donal Cameron, a Montana boy who is 11 years old in 1951. The flinty grandmother who raised him after his parents were killed needs an operation. This means Donny needs to go live with Gram’s somewhat estranged sister in Wisconsin. To do this he has to go Greyhound or, as they said back in the day, ride the dog bus. Having ridden the dog bus fairly frequently over the years, this reviewer braced herself for a horror story. Instead, Doig treats the reader to a panoply of folk who may or may not be down on their luck, but are still decent—most of them—for all that. Donny even runs into the not-yet-famous Jack Kerouac at one point. But that comes later.
Donny’s stay with his aunt Kate and her German-born husband, Herman, is a mixed blessing. Kate, so sweet of voice and broad of girth that the boy believes for a time that she’s the singer Kate Smith, is actually a muumuu-wearing termagant. But he’s saved by Herman, or, more precisely, the two save each other. Herman is just as put upon by “the Kate” as Donny; a man-child and a child-man, they end up on the lam together, eventually arriving in Wisdom, Montana. On the way, there are hobos and pow-wows and rodeos, the sights and sounds of the West and all kinds of good and bad luck.
Doig, the author of 16 books about the West, died earlier this year. In his final novel, he has great fun with both his characters and their slangy, inventive and often ribald ways of speech: “Holy wow!” is one of Donny’s favorite phrases. The other one can’t be repeated in a family publication. Last Bus to Wisdom is a big-hearted, joyfully meandering work by a master.