How often have you sat in a train, in a subway car, or on a public bus, and felt strangely compelled by the cluster of people around you, brought together for a short while by mere coincidence? For the observant Erica Van Horn, the answer seems to be: Always. In 23 vignettes, or 23 bus rides, Van Horn — an artist and writer born in New England, now living in rural Ireland — lovingly captures the oddities, absurdities, and poignant human realities of interacting with strangers.
From Limerick to Cork to Dublin to lesser-known locales, the public Irish buses may run late, but they are rarely dull. For some passengers, the buses serve as a necessary evil in-between destinations; in “Inchicore,” a man speaking loudly on the phone remarks: “Once you’re on the bus it’s like a trap” (8). But for others, the bus ride itself is the destination. In “A Never-Married,” the bus serves as an ideal hunting ground for a woman named Carmel to scout out potential husbands as “she can ask as many questions as she wants to ask and the man cannot escape” (32). In “Bus Pass,” a widower utilizes his free, senior bus pass traveling from town to town, from bus terminal to bus terminal, passing the hours otherwise spent mourning his wife. For better or worse, each bus load of passengers becomes familiar, often intimately so, with each others’ lives.
Van Horn’s direct, no-frills prose allows the passengers themselves, through their dialogue and actions, to take control of the narrative, reminding us in every vignette that Van Horn herself is part of the crowd, a watchful observer. Each sentence and each detail feels carefully selected, pruned down to its most concise and affecting form. There is a sense of appreciation woven through By Bus that the reader cannot help but experience. Who but Van Horn could consider the automated “Stand clear” command not as a repetitive annoyance, but as a zen-like chant, bringing the entire bus into the same, shared mind-space?
Perhaps most striking is the sense of gratitude one feels at the close of the book. As Van Horn reminds us, there is no worse person than those who refuse to thank their bus driver. So thank you, Erica Van Horn, and thank you to all the people that populate these bus rides, for a scenic drive through a microcosm of humanity.