Wednesday, 15 September 2010

The Great American Bus Ride - Irma Kurtz

I like this book. Partly, it's true, because it brings back memories - uncomfortable and chuckling alike - of my own Greyhound exploits. But mostly because it is so simple. It is a straightforward unpretentious account of a middle-aged American expat travelling across the US in that most democratic of vehicles: a bus.

A quick glance at the map on page 12 shows that Kurtz covers almost every one of the 48 contiguous states (South Dakota, West Virginia, Vermont and Rhode Island are all bypassed). Parts of the trip form a family pilgrimage and are likely to move most readers - especially when Kurtz finds books inscribed by her grandfather in Denver that have been rescued by pure chance. Most however, is pure travelogue - snapshots of journeys and people.

Despite the romantic views that many Europeans may have of long-distance bus travel in the US, Americans are probably more aware that in a country where the car is king, strange is the person who chooses to - or has to - take advantage of the Greyhound. True, the teenager off to visit a parent on his or her umpteenth marriage is a recurrent ghost of the trip and Kurtz - a sometime agony aunt - cannot stop herself being generous with her time and attention with such people. But in case the reader starts to question her sanity, the occasional pointed comment shows that she is not without a (welcome) critical edge to her kindness.

This is very much a tale of the journey rather than the places. After all, small town Greyhound stops cannot be expected to deliver much in the way of excitement. But the Greyhound is the destination in and of itself; so much so that Kurtz starts to miss the travel when she is stuck anywhere too long. I know how she feels. Despite the lack of comfort, there is something about North American bus travel that is unique, captivating and addictive. After all, once you've figured out the unwritten rules of the bus, it's hard not to feel like you own a part of the experience. Everyone should certainly do it once. And sit "front row bus right". JT

Overall verdict: Disarmingly effective.

Fourth Estate, 1994

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