Sunday, October 2, 2016

Bus driver fiction

When I was a city bus driver in Ann Arbor in the 1970s, the bosses used to harp on one rule in particular. They even made it into a singsong-y little slogan they'd sling at us time after time. "A late bus is annoying," it went, "but an early bus is worse than no bus at all."

For some reason, this refrain has stayed with me. At odd moments now and again over the years, it's suddenly echoed in my head. As have other memories of my four years driving bus, from the relentless push to meet time points to the endless battle against bus bunching, to how bus drivers regard stopping for passengers as the annoying necessity that endlessly messes with the schedule--to the ubiquitous driver fantasy of quitting the job by driving the bus into the management offices.

So imagine my delight upon opening The Maintenance of Headway by Magnus Mills to behold this first sentence: "'There's no excuse for being early,' said Breslin."

It only got better from there. Page after page, passage after passage, OMG moment after OMG moment--here is that elusive long-sought tome: a masterwork of bus driver fiction. From the dispatch-dictated illogical turnarounds to the deadpan hilarity of break-room dialogue, Mills here captures it all. The bus driving life, in all its quotidian nuttiness.

Sure, I have squealed with delight reading other books. And yes I'm sure, you don't have to have been a bus driver to appreciate this book. But oh my heavens it sure ratchets up the wow factor several notches when you can identify with each scene, appreciate each wisecrack, cringe at each management inanity. This verisimilitude coupled with Mills' customary mastery of working-class comedy of the absurd brings this baby home. A romp! From start to finish.

As I had also found The Restraint of Beasts, an earlier novel of his I read some years back. I remember howling aloud as I read that one. Don't know why I more or less forgot about Mills in the interim, or why I suddenly remembered him and thought to seek out more of his books, but yippee that I did. I now have at least two more to catch up on. Mills ain't perfect--I'm hoping I'll find something besides only male characters in his other books--but he's damned good.

He also, by the way, is that rarest and realest of deals: not merely a working-class writer, but a writer who remains a worker. A bus driver! His books get rave reviews, and have been nominated for awards, and who knows whether he could afford to quit driving bus and teach as so many other writers do to make a living. Whether he could or not, he doesn't. He works. And okay, yes of course teaching is working, but teaching writing to MFA students is a rarefied experience and to spend your days at that instead of at hourly wage work like driving bus or entering data or changing bedsheets or mining or cashiering or nail polishing or nannying or steel milling does remove you from the realm of real workers' lives which is to say real life. I've spent yo these many years bitterly resenting how I have to work full time at a full-time hourly wage job, and I'll resent and complain until the day I finally figure out a way to retire, but if you were to argue that living this life of the full-time wage worker has been vital to my writerly consciousness I guess I might concede the point. In Mills' case we have his job to thank for the brilliance of this book, I have no doubt.