“The town of Gros Ventre was so far from anywhere that you had to take a bus to catch the bus. At that time remote locales like ours were served by a homegrown enterprise with more name than vehicle, the Rocky Mountain Stage Line and Postal Courier, in the form of a lengthened Chevrolet sedan that held ten passengers besides the driver and the mailbag, and when I nervously climbed in for the first time ever, the Chevy bus was already loaded with a ladies’ club headed home from an outing to Glacier National Park.”
So begins Ivan Doig’s final novel, the beautifully told “Last Bus to Wisdom.” Doig, a third-generation Montanan, died this year, leaving a legacy of 15 previous books including the bestseller “The Bartender’s Tale.”
In the delightful “Last Bus to Wisdom,” Doig puts to good use his old-fashioned traditional storytelling skills. He deftly mixes wild yarns into a lively narrative, inserting stories and homegrown local expressions into the tale of 11-year-old Donal Cameron’s adventures of traveling alone by bus in 1951 from the Montana Rockies to Manitowoc, Wis., and heading westward again, ending eventually in Wisdom, Mont.
Young Donal, who lost both parents in a car crash, lives with his grandmother, a cook at a big Montana cattle ranch. But when she has to have a serious operation, Donal is sent East to spend the summer with his great-aunt, who is the opposite of her sister: She is as mean as Donal’s Gram is sweet.
Before he arrives in Manitowoc, gregarious Donal rides the Dog bus — as he likes to call the Greyhound — and along the way engages with everyone he sits next to as he solicits witticisms and other literary gems for his autograph book, which he carries with him everywhere.
With this epic journey, Doig has created a perfect scenario to introduce a host of memorable characters. Donal’s rich imagination (“what is imagination but mental mischief,” he tells us) allows him to interact easily with his fellow travelers: young soldiers off to the Korean War; a waitress named Letty who gives Donal his first kiss, and Letty’s roaming, always on the lam, boyfriend Harv, brought onto the bus handcuffed to the sheriff, who also happens to be his brother-in-law. (“Honest to God, Harv, if brains was talcum powder, you couldn’t work up a sneeze.”) There’s even a brief nighttime encounter with a flashlight-holding, endlessly writing Jack Kerouac.
After Donal arrives in Wisconsin, it’s obvious that this will be a short visit as he is not a good match with his great-aunt. But Donal gets along fabulously with her husband, Herman Brinker, because, as Donal tells us, “this odd bespectacled yah-saying garden putterer and henpecked husband, fully five times older than me, had a king hell bastard of an imagination.”
Herman, a stoker on a Great Lakes ore ship before it was sunk in a November storm, is truly one of Doig’s all-time great characters. With a penchant for independence and dime novels of the old West, and homely as a pickle, as Donal describes him, Herman sees an opportunity to leave his nagging wife and to seek new experiences. And so he hops on a bus with Donal, this time heading West for all manner of adventures with rodeos, Indians and peripatetic ranch hands.
“Last Bus to Wisdom” is a sweet novel, a fitting and fine last work from a writer we’ll miss for his endearing stories, his engaging characters and his enduring humanity.
Jim Carmin is a member of the National Book Critics Circle who lives in Portland, Ore.