The Boy on the Bus
by Deborah Schupack
Published by Free Press
224 pages, 2003
Twilight Zone Family
Reviewed by David Abrams
Meg Landry's family is dissolving like a drop of ink striking a bowl of water. Jeff, Meg's partner and the father of her two children, abandoned the family nine months ago to work on an architecture project in Toronto; their rebellious teenage daughter Katie has been away at boarding school; and now their eight-year-old asthmatic son Charlie seems to have been replaced by a child who's almost, but not quite, Charlie -- like a bad Xerox copy.
This is the eerie, unsettling family portrait painted in Deborah Schupack's first novel, The Boy on the Bus.
The sense of unease starts in the first paragraph: This ritual, her son coming home from school, was all wrong. It was taking too long, and now the driver was coming around the bus. The school bus has stopped on the road outside her Vermont farmhouse; it's the last stop of the day and there's only one child left on board: Charlie. For some reason, he refuses to get out of his seat.
"Hon?" Meg started to walk down the aisle but slowed almost immediately, each step smaller than the one before. As he shifted from distant to close, she slowed to a stop. This was not her son.
He looks like Charlie, but he's not exactly Charlie. The eyes are narrower, the hair is curlier, the face is fuller and firmer ("a more mature face"). A mother should know her own son, shouldn't she? Shouldn't she?
That's the question, and the baffling mystery, at the heart of this odd, haunting book. Schupack describes the terror and uncertainty of parenting with lyrical prose that falls somewhere between Alice McDermott and David Lynch. What parent hasn't suffered doubts like the ones which constantly scroll through Meg's mind?
Is this really Charlie and she just hasn't been paying attention to the changes he's going through? Is this an impostor, sent to replace the vanished Charlie? There he was again, at the foot of the stairs. He shimmered in a shallow pool of familiarity.
Or is this all a dream, a harrowing, symbolic tumble down the rabbit hole or through the looking glass? (The fact that Jeff's last name is Carroll might be a clue to the latter theory.)
As her family reconstitutes -- Jeff returns from Canada and Katie comes back from boarding school -- Meg looks for clues in the new boy's behavior (that's how she refers to him, "the boy") to help explain where her sickly, coughing son has vanished. Those around her aren't as certain that he's not Charlie. "It sure looks enough like him," Jeff says. Even the pediatrician wonders why Meg is making such a fuss. The boy is enigmatic and though he seems to know all of Charlie's routines, he's not quite the same boy she put on the bus in the morning.
Imagine, she thought, children as approximations. Then again, in a sense they were. Each time your child returned home, he was an approximation of who you had sent out into the world that morning. And each morning, he was an approximation of who you'd tried to seal with a kiss the night before.
Midway through the book, we start to wonder, is Meg losing her mind? Is this little more than the diary of a mad housewife who can no longer recognize her own son? After all, we know that Meg is "porous with exhaustion. Porous as coral. Sea and sand sweeping in, sweeping out, eroding, returning such a thing as coral to the ocean."
Schupack honestly addresses the unspoken qualms all parents have at one time or another. The Boy on the Bus charts that netherworld mothers and fathers navigate: when to love, when to smother, when to release, when to panic, when to pray -- the daily "fear, love, guilt, exhaustion, need." Charlie's blurred identity becomes symbolic for all that Meg has tried to do with her life: the ambitions that have shriveled, the goals she's never reached, the domestic boxes she's drawn around herself. The novel is as much about the woman in the house as it is the boy on the bus.
But it's the psychological puzzle which drives the taut narrative forward. As the story gets darker and more bizarre with each passing page, we wait for the other shoe to drop. Trouble is, Schupack never lets it fall, never rouses us from the drowsy unease that permeates the book. In the end, we're left with no precise answers to the domestic mystery and while it's easy to close The Boy on the Bus irritated at the author for not bringing the denouement to a firm conclusion, perhaps that's Schupack's whole point: parenting is a fuzzy science with no certain solutions. There will be days when even our own children will look like strangers. | July 2003
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.