Older readers—well, really old readers—may recall a ditty sung by the irrepressibly cheerful Dinning Sisters back in 1946; “Soon the sun disappeared from view./ The stars came out like they always do,/ Then I cuddled up close to you,/ And we both fell in love on a Greyhound Bus,/ That’s us—in love on a Greyhound Bus.” Darken the mood considerably, take “us” to be a small cross-section of America, and the song might serve as a summary of this new novel by A. (Ann) G. (Grace) Mojtabai. Apart from a few rest-stops and a handful of scenes in bus terminals, all the action takes place on a Greyhound speeding first west and then east across the middle of the country (Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, etc.), mostly at night, with a motley assortment of passengers who could be fairly described as lovelorn, en route to God knows what.
The leader of this chorus of what Herman Melville would call “isolatos” is the folksy-but-reserved driver, O. M. Plumlee, who, unlike his passengers, isn’t going through some sort of crisis. O. M. spends as much time keeping a snoopy, fatherly eye on his charges as he does on the road (local highways rather than the Interstate); and he sometimes breaks into improbable lyrical or philosophical flights: “We’d been having one of those clover days in early April, golden, glossy, everything buttered with sunshine, buds fattening, bird sounds—bright sounds—I won’t say ‘songs.’ Not all birds sing.” He’s heard it all, seen it all, even as he wonders whether and how the many stories he’s met up with could ever fit into “the big story”—an unsolvable puzzle that he’ll have to leave to “the wife,” whose religious faith he doesn’t share.
The passenger list includes Pierson, a 70-ish man fleeing the deathbed of his devoted life-companion, Marie, after she slips into dementia; Dee Anna, a 15-year-old girl who has been raped and impregnated by a friend of her stepbrother, then forced to surrender her baby by a team of righteous ladies from the prayer chain of Blazing Victory Apostolic Church; Sam Shevra, a chemist and a failure at business and marriage, who thinks he’ll give Pittsburgh a try; Roberta, a runaway wife of one year who decides to return to her cheating husband in St. Louis after he has her paged in the Tucson bus station; Eileen, an 85-year-old woman bringing one of her famous poppy-seed cakes to her moribund sister-in-law in Evanston; a strange, unwashed young outcast named Rakhim Amin from Uzbekistan; a brother and sister, Clem (8) and Sasha (6), traveling alone to Philadelphia, sent away by their alcoholic mother (who is living with her abusive boyfriend); and a few others.
The only happy ones in the group are a black couple with their baby daughter (and they’re coming back from a wasted 600-mile trip to show the child to her great-grandmother, who wouldn’t touch her). The rest all tell their sad stories to one another or Plumlee himself, not as if they wanted or expected to find help, comfort or enlightenment, but because they can’t sleep, have nothing better to do or happen to be sitting next to someone whose curiosity overpowers their reticence.
This being the United States of Alienation, no bonds are forged. In an over-the-top moment of American Gothicality, the obnoxious young Clem almost sells his irritating sister to a creepy stranger he meets in the men’s room. (There is also a homeless, ticketless wretch stowed away in the bus’s toilet.) Love of one sort or another is on everybody’s mind, but it is love that has either been lost or has chances ranging from slim to none.
True, chatty Eileen seems wise and well-adjusted enough; but no one is listening to her. And sweet, innocent Dee Anna impulsively refuses to get off at her “home” in Hunters Junction, Mo., instead buying a ticket for Columbus, where she knows not a soul but where things could hardly be worse. Otherwise, the travelers are, psychically speaking, going nowhere. In a typical snatch of conversation, an old man who ran away from Vinita, Okla., at age 11 reflects: “Funny, his going back only when his sight was near gone.… He wondered sometimes: What if he’d lasted it out in Vinita? What would he be doing now? Pumping gas? Making curly fries? Would he even recognize himself if he passed himself on the street? And would he have been happier, after all?”
Questions, questions—but, needless to say, not ones that Mojtabai is about to answer. The story ends, or breaks off, with a confused shooting in an unidentified terminal; and the characters disperse. It’s all perfectly formulaic (the all-American road adventure, named after a line by Jack Kerouac), but told in a humble, gentle, sympathetic voice. Mojtabai does a better job with her women than with her men, who can occasionally sound schematic. Still, she knows the people and places whereof she speaks (she is currently at home in Amarillo); and she quietly brings them to life, with their limited coping skills and their unlimited vulnerability. She also airbrushes away all but a few signs of 21st-century America, so that the mini-world she creates has an oddly timeless flavor (all transactions are in cash, for example). The Dinning Sisters—who, by the way, were very good singers—while saddened by all the heartbreak in that Greyhound bus, would surely be moved.