Last Bus to Wisdom Background Notes

Two for the Road

When I was eleven going on twelve, our family was raggedly sewn together with medical catgut. My dad, a feisty Montana ranch hand, had raised me by himself since my mother’s death, but an operation which cost him most of his stomach forced him to enlist his mother-in-law to help with the matter of me. That summer of 1951, Dad had barely convalesced enough to return to a ranch job when my grandmother faced an operation for something mysteriously called “female trouble.” The question of what to do with a rambunctious kid during this surgical crisis was resolved by packing me off to my hitherto unknown great-aunt and uncle in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, by Greyhound bus. And so we end up with the real-life parallel to my fictional version, right?

Not nearly. Memory and imagination see to that. First of all, my actual relatives were not within shooting distance of my made-up characters: my Aunt Marguerite was a squat salty old hausfrau quite the opposite from the invented Aunt Kate and her sniffy ways, and my silent brooding Uncle Herman resembled Herman the German of the book only in a smoggy passion for cigars. More vitally – and if you are among those who put your hand up at readings to ask where the writer gets his/her ideas, here comes one answer – my journey to and fro Wisconsin must have gone without incident, because I have virtually no recall of it. Which, in a novelist’s funhouse head, is not bad news at all. It clears the way to imagine a bus trip where any number of calamities can happen to the green young passenger from the West.

Thus we have Donny, self-described dippy kid although “bright enough to read by at night,” doing his damnedest to deal with a world new to him – mammoth Greyhound depots,  payphones, a suspicious sheriff, and most of all, the disparate cast of characters I have devilishly ticketed into the bus seats with him. Luckily, his yearnings are matched by those of that ever-surprising uncle, Herman the German, and they become the novel’s inseparable two for the road. And spectator that I am to this livewire kid who bears my shadow but not much else, I like it that he’s a tailspinner, a playful storier within the story. I wonder where he got that from?

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