Edge of the Known Bus Line by James R. Gapinski

–Reviewed by Joshua Lambert–

In James R. Gapinski’s Edge of the Known Bus Line (Etchings Press, University of Indianapolis), a woman’s daily commute is hijacked and she finds herself dumped, along with her fellow passengers, in a dismal shanty: Out of Service. Unable to leave, the townsfolk subsist on the few items dropped from the bus on its infrequent route. The sky is smoke; the trees are ash; the ground is mud.

It doesn’t get much more dismal than that – until, of course, you factor in all the cannibalism. Tongue, we’re told, is a delicacy. It is Mad Max by way of Cormac McCarthy. A man’s back takes the place of communal newspaper – headlines literally carved into his skin. Instead of leather and metal, one of Gapinski’s wastelanders “has fashioned an eyepatch out of a Trojan condom wrapper.”

Our protagonist herself is an interesting one. She has a short fuse, is violent even, and is fiercely adamant in her refusal to conform to Out of Service’s routines and ‘culture’, and the loss of hope that would represent.

She’s getting out of here, and she has no intention of dying today, or any day for that matter. It becomes clear that this isn’t the first horrible situation she has found herself in. An unpleasant history is hinted at throughout, description of her past as subtle as the present is overt.

“He looks like my husband. He looks like the doctor who performed the first surgery and the second and the third—when everything that could go wrong did. He looks like my dad.”

We surmise that her resilience is hard won. It’s a good move: we need a hardy protagonist, with wits and nerve, to stomach Out of Service ourselves.

Gapinski’s writing itself is very well accomplished. His command of character goes beyond our protagonist – from the oddly charismatic shotgun-toting prophet-leader to the tender residents who spare some rat-meat and a can of rusty water for the newcomer.

There’s a gleeful imagination at work in all the grotesquery, and one episode in particular, a spider venom-induced fever-dream , is a virtuosic display: trauma and hallucination thrown in a blender, dumped out in all-caps.

Having said all that, there’s a case of ‘all dressed up with nowhere to go’ to this story. Edge of the Known Bus Line is more concept than narrative, even if it is a pretty decent concept. The story marches sideways, not forwards, a tableau rather than a plot. Progression seems minor, and then someone hits an ‘end story’ button, which materialises a conclusion from thin air. The story would be stretched at 100 pages, and the total page-count is 134. Also problematic is the evident allegorical nature of the story. It’s a telling modern allegory – a bleak landscape, starving, demanding conformity – but is it interesting? Most readers already know that capitalism is cannibalistic. And sending up religion as a magical bus, destined to take us from wasteland to a paradise of orgies and barbeques, is indeed amusing (very), but does that say anything new?

What Gapinski does, he does well, and Edge of the Known Bus Line is a compelling, imaginative read which builds on dystopia without feeling derivative. But it is also an allegory that offers no solutions and limited commentary, and I question the worth of literature in pointing at society, saying ‘well this is a bit rough’, and adding nothing else to the subject. It’s not particularly insightful, or even helpful, to point out society as, in our protagonist’s words, a shithole shantytown.

But that tone – humour, contextualised by allegory, decked with unsettling images – is still to be commended.

The humour in question is largely Beckettian absurdity. People are “required to pray daily at the Cubs Shrine—it’s basically an oversized foam finger from a Chicago Cubs game that’s been skewered on a stick. Others tell me that the Cubs are blasphemous, and they pray to a ratty old White Sox T-shirt.” The protagonist plays Go Fish with a pack of useless credit cards.

Amusement arises, too, from the very idea that we are supposed to take the residents of Out of Service seriously, when one man “wears a loincloth made from woven bits of what appears to be dental floss. Attached to his extension cord belt is a white bag full of spark plugs.” But take them seriously we do. The silliness of it all isn’t random: instead it is shown as abject desperation. The whole book is a grimace, that might just be a smirk.

This tightrope walk between humour and brutality, bleakness and amusement, is beautifully accomplished in Edge of the Known Bus Line. Gapinski has an expert command of absurdism here, and knows how to get a reader immersed in his world, mud up to the knees.

Find out more about Edge of the Known Bus Line on James R Gapinski’s website.

Reviewed by Joshua LambertJosh graduated with a degree in English Literature with Creative Writing from Bath Spa University, and has spent his time since then as an editor working with independent authors and self-publishing houses. He’s a ravenous consumer of most anything: literature, food, film, games, and graphic novels, and is equally zealous about deconstructing those things. Thus, reviews, and long, one-sided conversations.