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Book Review: Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig

With the passing of Ivan Doig April 9, 2015, American letters lost a quiet titan.

Lauded as one of the best Western writers of the 20th and 21st century, Doig nonetheless maintained a somewhat low profile, writing constantly and consistently about a Montana he knew intimately and adored. His work touched every aspect of his native state, from its frontier roots to its mining struggles to the encroachment of modernization.

But Doig, born in White Sulphur Springs, north of Bozeman, didn’t define himself strictly as Western, at least when it came to writing. And he himself did not stay in Montana forever. He went east to Northwestern University to major in journalism. That trip shaped Doig’s life; fittingly, a similar trip shapes the life of the protagonist of Last Bus to Wisdom, Doig’s final novel, which was recently reissued.

The book centers on 11-year-old Donal Cameron, a precocious, (very) redheaded boy forced to leave his beloved Treasure State when his grandmother has to have surgery for her “female trouble.” With no parents to raise him, and a deathly fear of ending up a ward of the state, Cameron has no choice but to board a Greyhound for Manitowoc, Wisconsin, to stay with his great aunt Kate and her husband, Herman the German, until he can return after Gram’s recuperation.

the last bus to wisdom

Things don’t go as planned, but when do they ever? That’s the whole point, according to Cameron, who narrates the book from the vantage of old age, speaking of that “near-stranger” that was him, all those years ago:

Knowing him to be singled out by fate to live a tale he will never forget, I wish that things could have been different enough then to let him set off as if on a grand adventure, turned loose in the world at an age when most kids couldn’t unknot themselves from the apron strings of home. He has never been out of Montana, barely even out of the Two Medicine country, and now the nation stretches ahead of him, as unknown and open to the imagination as Pleasantville.

Wish as Cameron Sr. might that things could have gone differently, those events nonetheless created him. Indeed, Cameron, in many ways, is a stand-in for Doig, who already immortalized his childhood in his esteemed memoir This House of Sky. Cameron, nonetheless, is a different child when compared to Sky’s mini-Doig. For instance, he’s a name-collector, carrying around an autograph book he hopes to fill with enough names to break (and hold) the world record for most autographs.

One way Cameron and Doig are undeniably similar, however: they’re both storytellers. But where Doig made a career out of it, Cameron is a boy in the throes of a congenital, humorous temptation—storying:

So, there it went, again. Out of my mouth something unexpected, not strictly true but harmlessly made up. Storying, maybe it could be called. For I still say it was not so much that I was turning into an inveterate liar around strangers, I simply was overflowing with invention. The best way I can explain it is that I was turned loose from myself. Turned loose, not by choice, from the expected behavior of being “a good kid,” which I was always a little restless about anyway. “You’re being a storier,” Gram would warn whenever I got carried away spinning a tale about one thing or another. Now, with no check on my enthusiasm when it started playing tricks upstairs in me—the long bus trip seemed to invite daydreaming, mine merely done out loud—I was surprising myself with the creations I could come up with. I mean, what is imagination but mental mischief of a kind, and why can’t a youngster, particularly one out on his own, protectively occupy himself with invention of that sort before maturity works him over?

From the get-go it’s apparent that Last Bus to Wisdom is a well-planned book—and takes its time too. Indeed, the bus trip out of Montana to Wisconsin takes up nearly a third of the book, and Doig makes use of the slow burn to illuminate an astonishingly huge cast of characters. Indeed, the bus episodes have the depth and richness of a pilgrimage, as Cameron becomes acquainted with the lives of soldiers, waitresses, nuns, drivers, and others. Like any good road book set in the 1950s, Jack Kerouac makes an appearance. And, of course, Cameron asks them all to sign his autograph book.

In essence, Last Bus to Wisdom is a Bildungsroman, or “coming-of-age story,” tracking Cameron’s development over a very abnormal time in his life. For readers looking for a snappier storyline, you’d do well to look elsewhere. Because Doig hasn’t any time for that in Last Bus to Wisdom; he stretches out every encounter to their full, sometimes fulsome, often satisfying limits.

About Sean Reichard

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