I've probably said it before, but John Steinbeck was not the writer most of us thought he was. By that I mean that many of us think of Steinbeck rather narrowly. Even I, having read almost everything he has written, tend to think of Steinbeck as a writer of realist fiction of downtrodden farmers and paisanos. But from To a God Unknown to Burning Bright, Steinbeck's style has never been quite so easy to nail down.
The Wayward Bus is one of the novels that defies our perception of Steinbeck. This is most evident in the way the story is told, a continually roving character study. The narrative jumps from character to character as they prepare, then embark on a bus journey during a potentially dangerous rainstorm. Steinbeck rarely spends as much as two pages on any particular character before he's moving down the line, giving the perspective of the next character, then the next. Never do I recall in a work of Steinbeck any such character roulette. And it works magnificently for this book with its strangers-on-a-journey motif.
And these are great characters with so much potential. Characters who act contrary to their beliefs. Characters who put on airs. Characters who are so realistic because each one tries to convey their insignificance while unconsciously acting on the knowledge that they are the center of the universe.
The Wayward Bus was well on its way to being one of my all-time favorite Steinbeck reads, but toward the end, the book itself modeled the journey: it lost traction and went off the road. The problem is that the end is rushed. The reader spends so much time getting to know these characters and all their quirks, that once the characters face their greatest challenge, it's time for the story to conclude. The conflict you anticipate for a couple hundred pages fizzles. Also, I was personally disappointed that the story never returned to Alice, the only significant character who is not a passenger on the bus. Overall, I thought the resolution was poor.
Unfortunately, The Wayward Bus is sort of forgettable. So much time is spent with each character's thoughts that little action occurs. Normally, I like stories like this when there is a pay-off, but the conclusion is flat. Still, I liked The Wayward Bus if for no reason other than the build-up. Steinbeck was on to something with this style, but he might have lost interest in the project before he finished, or maybe he was just unable to translate his idea for the conclusion to the page. Whatever the reason, The Wayward Bus is every bit a Steinbeck tale, but parallel to none other.