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'The Last Bus to Wisdom' is Ivan Doig's final tribute to the American West

Ivan Doig's last novel is his most autobiographical and a gentle close to a worthy career.

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    The Last Bus to Wisdom
    By Ivan Doig
    Riverhead Books
    464 pp.
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Ivan Doig has had a long and celebrated career as a journalist, historian, and writer of American westerns. Doig's first book, a memoir of his childhood in Montana, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and his novels "The Bartender’s Tale" and "The Whistling Season" became New York Times bestsellers. Doig died in April, but his latest novel, Last Bus to Wisdom will be released this August, as the final note in his paean to the American West.

Though "Last Bus" is fiction, it’s the most autobiographical of his novels. Donny, the plucky redheaded narrator and protagonist, is an orphaned 11-year-old raised by his grandmother, a ranch cook.  Over the course of the story, Donny bounces from Montana to Wisconsin and back again in search of a stable home and family.  Doig lost his own mother when he was six and spent time traveling with his father to various jobs along the Rocky Mountains until they landed with his grandmother on a Montana sheep ranch.

The action in "Last Bus" is set in motion by Gram’s surgery, which prompts her to send Donny to live in Wisconsin with his Aunt Kate, who Gram has never liked but who – she hopes – can give Donny the care she no longer can. Donny spends the first hundred pages of the book catching a series of Greyhounds (he and Gram call it “the dog bus”), living on a steady diet of Mounds bars, and encountering an eccentric cast of characters, which makes for a thoroughly pleasurable read, full of improbable but satisfying coincidences. Donny just escapes being robbed, missing his bus in the Twin Cities and being pummeled by a gang of boys on their way to summer camp, all the while engaging in conversations with his fellow passengers – a group of soldiers about to ship to Korea (the year is 1951), an officious sheriff and his long-suffering prisoner, a teamster driver,and a diner waitress who gives young Donny his first kiss.

Donny is an innocent, but he’s also a bit of a rogue who specializes in inventing wish-fulfillment stories about his life and family. The book is as much a picaresque as it is a western since Donny is a wanderer by necessity, skirting among more and less savory members of the working class, exposing adult hypocrisies, and bending the truth to survive – and because, like Doig, he’s a natural storyteller who likes a good yarn.

Arriving at his Aunt Kate and Uncle Herman’s is a letdown: his bedroom is the attic, his breakfasts soggy cereal, and his only entertainment playing canasta with his aunt’s friends, so Donny soon escapes with his henpecked Uncle Herman in tow. There are shades of Mark Twain here, along with every other American writer who created male heroes that escape a “civilization” represented by prissy women. I thought this would bother me, but Kate’s narcissism felt real enough to resonate – an unlikeable character to be sure, but more a “type” than a stereotype, and one I’ve met.

Though Herman and Donny’s escape is welcome, the book loses some momentum in its last section as the coincidences become more strained. The two climb back aboard the “dog bus” to live out Herman’s Western fantasies and encounter swindlers (again), evade the law, and have a brush with fame in what I can only refer to as this reader’s “please-don’t-let-it-be-Jack-Kerouac” moment. (It was.)

Doig’s representation of native Americans as spectacle, though true to the times, is also a bit cringe-worthy. (If I were reading this book in a class, I’d assign a good dose of Sherman Alexie to go along with it.) More puzzling is his decision to change the date of the Crow Fair, which takes place in August, to the Fourth of July.  From what I understand, July Fourth is not a holiday native Americans generally celebrate even with their own ceremonies, since European-Americans’ “independence” meant their colonization. However, that’s a relatively small detail.

The story picks up steam in its final pages, which involve “good guys” in the form of an outlaw-hero and a rodeo rider outsmarting a sheriff, and a community of hobos who harvest hay in the titular Wisdom, Montana. Loose ends are tied up too neatly for realism, but in a way that’s satisfying for readers who crave a happy ending.

It’s a fun summer read, and a way to pay tribute to Doig’s wonderful combination of memory and imagination that gives us one more vision of the unique history of the American West.

Elizabeth Toohey is an assistant professor of English at Queensborough Community College, CUNY, and a regular Monitor contributor.

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