July 27th 2012
The Olympic Games open today in London, providing a spectacular opening ceremony and a month of events we will follow and then forget.
Books can be like that, too. Some offer fireworks but leave little trace, some offer not much of anything. But the kind that you make room for on your book shelf, the kind that draws you in and lends you its world to live in for a while, you don't forget those. I name among these "Zorba the Greek," "Lady Chatterly's Lover," "Consider the Lilies," "Sunset Song," "Wuthering Heights," "Tortilla Flat," "Of Mice andMen," "Cannery Row," "Grapes of Wrath," "Travels with Charlie," "Angela's Ashes," "The Meadow," "Tinkers" - I could go on. Every so often, a new gem comes along, and you stuff it impossibly onto a shelf already stuffed. It's like bringing friends along on the journey. They sit up there being very still, marking various stretches of the path you walk along.
A month or so ago, when I was moseying around the book room at the John Steinbeck museum in Salinas, I came across one of his titles I hadn't know about before. It was called "The Wayward Bus," though this is a bad translation. Steinbeck wrote the synopsis in Spanish and presumably the title, too - "El Camion Vacilador," which present the translator with a problem, because there is no good translation for the word "vacilador." "Wayward," certainly doesn't do it. "Vacilador," is a wonderfully Latin concept, a bit like what we call "Mexican time," which is time maybe a bit earlier than you expected, probably a bit later, but almost assuredly not now. Vacilador means that you have a destination but you don't care much whether you get there. This is not a term we gringos can get our minds around much, because we are very destination-oriented. But the bus in this story is vacilador, and as the introduction to the book concludes, it is a much overlooked book, coming as it did into a very tight spot between the publication of "Cannery Row," and "The Pearl." It's also quite a bit more sexual than Steinbeck usually gets, so the guardians of the moral majority at the time, and they were legion, might have seen fit to sweep it under the alfombra.
The story starts in Steinbeck country at a bus stop on a crossroad comprised of a gas station and a lunch room. The owner, Juan, is also the bus driver who collects pasengers from various other points and takes them to meet the Greyhound Bus on its way to Los Angeles. As the book opens, Juan's bus has broken down and the passengers have been forced to spend the night at the lunch room. All the passengers, including Juan and his drunk of a wife, are at another type of crossroads in their lives. As day breaks, the sky threatens more rain, and Juan isn't sure he should drive out, when flashfloods threaten to take out the bridge they must cross in order to get to their destination. There are only eight passengers, but Steinbeck draws each one meticulously, down to the shape of their earlobes. There's the young salesman, the older couple with a sham of a marriage; their randy daughter; an attractive blond who entertains business men (the husband of the couple is quite sure he's seen her before, but can't remember where); a grouchy old man who poses as a prophet of doom; Juan's adolescent car mechanic, and the lunchroom's waitress who thinks she's on her way to meet Cary Grant. The story sort of hangs around the character of Juan, who, perhaps more than the others, must come to a decision that will change his life forever.
Steinbeck conjures each character so deftly, that you find yourself climbing into the skin of their lives. He manages a difficult task for a writer, that of making each of his character's words their own and not his. You really can hear each one speaking.
When Juan's bus takes a much less travelled back road and becomes stuck in mud, each of the passengers is forced to crisis point. It always makes for compelling reading when social facades drop, especially with characters you are invested in. Anyway, I won't give away any spoilers. Suffice it to say that "El Camion Vacilador," is well worth a read. And you won't forget the word "Vacilador," either.