Short moral debut novel about one man’s jaunts through an anti-Pittsburgh so close to an underground that it feels futuristic.
Ray has eschewed the academic set for a more focused and intimate association with real life: he helps clients from a Blind Center learn to use the bus system to get around in a cautionary urbanscape, as if he were “a transgender Dorothy leading his benighted band through this Oz of mundane reality.” As we move through this hectic, bleary world, we also move through Ray’s life, visiting his mother, hearing of his ex-wife, Arlene, occupying a kind of alter-city based on bus schedules and the unique topography of Pittsburgh, PA. Although the story begins on this interesting terrain, it soon executes a bus’s awkward three-point turn back to familiar territory: the adventures of writing instructors at the University of Pittsburgh, where Walton (stories: Waiting in Line, not reviewed) teaches. This puts it into the same category as Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys and, less directly, Chuck Kinder’s Honeymooners, though it isn’t quite as successful as either. Ray is soon attending parties of Pitt writing instructors, engaging in random sexual encounters with ex-colleagues of his ex-wife, having adventures not quite in keeping with what seemed to have gotten the book’s bus rolling in the first place. The vision is admirable, but Ray’s near obsession with bus schedules and routine stands in stark contrast to the overall structure of the narrative, whose ride is far more runaway and frenetic. The many references to Pittsburgh may become tiresome—unrecognizable to some, and an already-mined wellspring to others—but the final message is genuine: “ . . . all our journeys are chancy, but the intention to do good, like the intention to sin, is equal to the deed.”
Disorganized in a way that’s intended to be appealing, though its combination of humanity and idea never quite melds.