Publication Year: 2003
Tags: Pretentious, Avoid-At-All-Cost, Pointless
A Vermont housewife finds that the last boy on the bus, the boy who hasn’t left the bus because he doesn’t seem to know that he’s arrived at his home, both is and somehow is not her son Charlie. He looks mostly right, sounds mostly right, but he is different; rather than being a severely asthmatic weakling, this boy seems more robust, even more mature. No one — not the bus driver, the sheriff, the neighbors, the husband, the older daughter — can tell if this is really Charlie. Each falls back upon the strange, perhaps inexplicable observation, “You’re his mother; you should know.”
While still a volunteer literary critic for the National Writers Association, a group founded by (among others) “Perry Mason’s” creator Erle Stanley Gardner and popular novelist Clive Cussler, I was well-known as a “court of last resort” — the one critic who could be counted on to find something positive to say about any work that I was asked to render a critique upon. I am less generous with books that have been published by major publisher, as it is assumed that the author has at least some talent, at least some purpose in his/her work, that it is being presented to us as something that is wholly worthy of both dead trees and advertising money. When a commercially published work just doesn’t cut it, I’m likely not to call a spade a spade, but rather refer to it as an effing shovel. This is one such book.
Deborah Schupack’s first effort, the novel The Boy on the Bus, is one of those painfully self-indulgent and pointless “artistic works” which plague the bookshelves from time to time. Beginning with an interesting premise — a mother’s creeping certainty that this boy on the afternoon school bus is a close approximation of, but is not truly, her son — Schupack takes us on a 215 page slog through a quagmire of psychological pretension which ultimately, as Shakespeare put it, signifies nothing.
The pathetic angst of the mother’s indecision, coupled with the unhelpfulness of the various neighbors who keep insisting that a mother should know her child, is a relentless exercise in futility and pointlessness. Clearly, according to Schupack, being a human mother is an exercise is being helpless. In a world of anthropomorphic animals, I’m sure that the mother could literally smell the child to know if it’s her own offspring, but humans (limited creatures that they are) have to rely upon something else, and no one seems willing to suggest a DNA test — or worse, admit that the DNA test might come back to prove that the boy really is her son, with nothing to explain the strangeness.
The back-cover description is far more exciting than the book itself. Stewing in her analytical juices, dragging the reader through page after tedious page of perversely drawn analogy and pretentiously clever asides, author Schupack forgot the single most important aspect of telling a story: It needs to have a bloody point! While I grant that it’s possible to have a book that has no point other than to carry its reader through an interesting landscape of ideas (Damon Knight’s book Humpty Dumpty: An Oval is one of these), the book must still be interesting in some way or another. Hints are dropped all over the place, each one capable of leading to a satisfying explanation and a powerful resolution of the facts in evidence; alas, Schupack seems not to have known what she wanted her book to be when it grew up.
This is the second problem with this work: It’s about a hundred or more pages too long. If the story actually had a point and an ending, it could be quite reasonably condensed into an hour-long episode of The Outer Limits (meaning about 42 minutes of television screen time, these days). What I’m most reminded of is the cover of an issue of Writer’s Digest (a magazine which, back in the 1970s, was actually worth reading and taking seriously), whereupon a sad-faced lady had “a short story, small, little cash worth,” while her happy-faced twin had “a novel, big, worth a lot of money.” There are times when the essence of a story simply cannot support more than about 20,000 words of expression. This is something that Stephen King seems to have forgotten in his dotage. (Terrifyingly, he’s just under 11 years older than I am.)
Unhappily, this is one of those books, published by one of the six (or is it fewer now, with all the mergers?) remaining commercial publishing houses, and clearly someone there knows a guy who knows a guy who got this tripe published and publicized. Had it “come over the transom,” as they put it in the olden days of publishing, no one in his right mind would have bothered to take a look at it. Still, if you are one of those “hip” readers who enjoys precious authors such as Paul Auster or Richard Brautigan — you know, the stuff whose fans look down their nose at you if you “just don’t get it” — then this book is for you. Enjoy the complete absence of plot, the unutterable boredom of unsympathetic existential angst (Kafka and Sartre did it better), the rambling attempt at overly-intellectual self-importance through time-wasting obfuscation, and pat yourself on the back for “getting it”.
Conversely, if you want a good story, look elsewhere. For the “things are not what they seem” genre, try Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon, Dean Koontz’s False Memory, or classics like Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives and Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers. For explorations into the alienation of the modern family, no one has yet topped Judith Guest’s Ordinary People. And for a rollicking good tale of children, spend a little time with relative newcomer M. Bradley Davis, whose The Hand in the Mirror: Mindfusion Book 1 will provide an abundance of thought-provoking ideas set amid the vast and fertile genre of science fiction.
I hope that, should Ms. Schupack have another offering in the wings, she ensures that it is a whole boy, on the right bus, and that both actually go somewhere.