One by one, an assortment of characters enter a bus station from the darkness of an early morning, and purchase tickets for their destinations: Bronxville, Greenwich, Siracusa, Salzburg, Washington, D.C. and the Newark airport. “The first bus out,” the ticket agent tells them.
This is the first tip-off that Eugene Löhrke’s 1935 novel, The First Bus Out, is not about the usual bus trip.
All the travellers climb up the rear entrance when the bus finally pulls in, and pile into seats in the back. Surrounded by fog and drizzle, with nothing but an occasional street light or the vague outline of buildings or hills, the bus seems to be lost in a world unto itself. “Thick shadows, gray and black, muffled the painted steel-arch of the ceiling like a dense upholstery. Rapt eyes gazed straight ahead at the blank, dull windshield or out of the leaden windows, seizing casually on each recognizable fragment of landmark, dropping it into the deep soothing vacuum of inertia and speed.”
It doesn’t take long, of course, to figure out what’s going on. The only way all these people could travel on a bus that would need to hit all points on the compass is if they’re really headed for the same destination. Löhrke was not the first to come up with this premise. Sutton Vane’s 1923 play, “Outward Bound,”, brought seven people together in the lounge of an ocean liner, and discover eventually that they’re in the waiting room for Heaven and Hell. It’s also a situation that allowed the writers of “Lost” to work their way out of the convoluted web of concidences they’d spent six seasons weaving.
To Löhrke’s credit, the gimmicks stop as soon as his cast is on board the bus. For the next two hundred pages, we wander through their thoughts, learning a little–but not too much–about them. Mrs. William Godfrey Horton, an imperious dowager who treats the meek Mrs. Harold Strong sitting beside her with contempt, turns out to have only transformed her drunken, abusive and unfaithful husband into the pillar of virtue she wanted when he did her the favor of dying. Myron Baxter, a liberal writer, comes to realize he has nothing to offer the masses he’s spent his time trying to lead into revolt. The only passenger who seems to have no regrets or misgivings is Schiavoni, a Mafia hitman with a gun nestled inside his jacket.
Every once in a while, one of them notices the white, terrified face of a young girl who rises up from behind the driver to scream, but the sound never penetrates his stream of thoughts.
And that’s all that happens, essentially. At the very end, we do follow the thoughts of Mr. Mole, a sad and lonely physics professor, in the last moments as he commits suicide and finds himself back at the beginning, waiting in the bus station. Oddly, however, the lack of action does nothing to detract from book’s enjoyment. Löhrke creates a mosaic from bits of memories from each character, but his touch is usually light and subtle and no one comes to any dramatic realization. The truth is always a little hard to bring into focus, much like the landscape seen through the bus’s window.
Taking a note from Graham Greene, I would class The First Bus Out as an entertainment rather than a novel. For me, it offered a couple evenings’ worth of interesting reading and belongs in a class with Herbert Clyde Lewis’ elegant and grimly comic Gentleman Overboard.
Löhrke was a veteran of World War One who’d worked as a newspaper reporter and translator when he took up fiction in the early 1930s. He wrote a total of four novels, but when he and his wife moved to England in the late 1930s, he focused on nonfiction, writing several books that dealt with events just before and after the outbreak of World War Two. It appears that his health was damaged during duty with the U.S. Army during the war, as he published little afterwards and died at the age of 56 in 1953.