Review

The Boy on the Bus

by Deborah Schupack



THE BOY ON THE BUS, Deborah Shupack's first novel, opens with a
school bus stopping to drop its final passenger at an
upper-middle-class home in rural Vermont. But when Meg Landry
climbs aboard to greet her eight-year-old son, who remains in his
seat, she realizes that something is amiss. Mother and child don't
recognize each other. "This was not her son," Meg thinks. "He
looked quite a bit like Charlieā€¦But there were
differences."

Meg is at a loss as to how to explain the situation and feels quite
awkward in front of Sandy, the school bus driver on whom she has an
incipient crush. She is overwhelmed and has an eerie sense of
powerlessness. Soon, several townspeople, including the sheriff,
are gathered around the bus and, in the unspoken pressure to keep
things moving along normally, Meg invites the young stranger into
her house.

The cool bravura of Schupak's first chapter leaves the reader
feeling a weird chill and a gnawing curiosity. The chill lingers
throughout the book's terse 215 pages. The curiosity, to a certain
extent, is left unrewarded. Charlie is not a Stepford child, there
are no evil experiments taking place in small town New England and
no abductions or exorcisms ensue. Instead, with creeping subtlety
and creepy insistence, THE BOY ON THE BUS evolves into a compelling
meditation on personal identity and the degree to which family
members can never know each other --- and themselves. The novel,
even in its brevity, is much more like a Twilight Zone
episode than a plot-thick airport paperback.

For some readers, the lack of a puzzle-perfect solution to the
mysteries of THE BOY ON THE BUS will make the novel less than
satisfying. Others, however, will cheer for Schupak's intellectual
audacity and her mischievous placement of familiar genre landmarks
(the estranged husband, the over-involved small town sheriff, the
missing child) at the beginning of what proves to be an
unexpectedly experimental work of literature. Like an exurban Paul
Auster, Schupack seamlessly blends the quotidian and the
oblique.

In her portrayal of Meg's relationship with her husband Jeff, who
has been away on business for much of the past two years, Schupack
also begs favorable comparison to the master of abstract domestic
riddles, playwright Edward Albee. There are echoes of Albee's
miscommunicating couples from WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, THE
PLAY ABOUT THE BABY and THE GOAT, OR WHO IS SYLVIA in Meg and
Jeff's clipped dialogue --- indirect at one moment, stinging the
next. And like Albee's dueling duos, their discussions are
ultimately more about the existentialism of wedded life (How are we
connected? What does our marriage mean?) rather than the specific
question of the situation at hand (Is this boy our son
Charlie?).

It eventually becomes clear that Meg's confusion about the boy is
linked to her own acute identity crisis. Once an aspiring painter,
Meg has let her artistic pursuits drift to the wayside, turning her
life's focus to motherhood. But tugged by muffled yearnings to
reclaim the pursuit she has gradually abandoned, Meg seems to
experience a sort of internal self-division, an inability to
integrate her past self with her present circumstances. She is torn
between raising children and birthing brainchildren.

Written in elegant plainspoken prose that doesn't lend easily to
quoted extracts, THE BOY ON THE BUS is a smooth and easy read that
you can finish in one sitting. Only upon reaching its end does the
reader realize quite how prickly and provocative the novel is.
Infused with ambiguity and endless seductiveness, this novel is a
gem of a debut.

Reviewed by Jim Gladstone on January 21, 2011

The Boy on the Bus
by Deborah Schupack

  • Publication Date: March 6, 2003
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • ISBN-10: 0743242203
  • ISBN-13: 9780743242202