Back on the Bus

“A bus covered in dust. This dirty, gray bank safe came crawling down the block, and folks nearly went to tears. There were passengers inside it already, too many, in fact… But the bus stopped. A few people got off, which meant there was room for a few more… But finally everyone agreed: a quartet of senior citizens walked to the bus door” (356).

This is my second time reading Big Machine and yet I had no memory of this brief scene of people crowding onto the bus after the explosion in Garland. This moment seems to resolve the haunting image of “That shabby man… scowling from the shoulder” who was thrown off the Greyhound at the beginning of Ricky’s story. I think the reason that man remains in Ricky’s thoughts is because he comes to represent the cast-out or despised, who have been failed by institutions. However, by the end of the book, Ricky encounters a bus full of people who shift and make room for more. A group of anxious people agree to let the neediest people get on the bus. In fact, in the wake of tragedy, Garland seems to be full of people making room and inviting others in: “Couples, trios, and quartets of people walked together on the streets. Holding each other up. Some of them crying, others still shocked. But no one seemed abandoned. Someone grabbed you up if you were alone. They pulled you close.” Even before Ricky officially takes on the mission to invite them back in, the text is acknowledging his new perspective.

In my group, we expressed some puzzlement over Ricky’s statement that he likes America. However, when I consider this scene by the bus, I can begin to understand the change that Ricky is going through. He says, “I like America, where believers eddy around one another like currents of air… To be an American is to be a believer. I don’t have much faith in institutions, but I still believe in people.” On Thursday I wrote a blogpost about two different interrogations of the American identity, and I love to think that Big Machine is entering the same conversation. If the bus at the story’s beginning represents the cast-aside, this bus at the story’s end seems to reflect Ricky’s growing faith in people and in individual kindness. And although Big Machine’s title refers to doubt, it’s kind of wonderful to realize that Ricky has found something to believe in by the story’s end: “Between Adele and me it was clear who was the believer.” Even the yellow suitcase beneath the bed, full of legal pads, seems to indicate that Ricky has belief that somebody will read his words someday.

My favorite thing about the final chapters is that LaValle erases the line between doubt and faith, embracing their contradiction. The story doesn’t end by giving us a comfortable answer—faith is noble or faith is dangerous, doubt is cowardly or doubt is essential—but simply continues to complicate our understanding. Even in the book’s final moments, Ricky complicates the story of his father with sudden compassion: “A boy alone in a darkened house. His family an institution that had failed him.” LaValle’s narrative and the gradual way he tells stories prevent readers from ever feeling concrete in our judgement of Ricky’s character, or even Adele’s. He takes away our certainty. In the same way, I don’t feel certain that the book is upholding either doubt or faith as the ‘correct’ answer. Although doubt and faith have certainly been weaponized throughout Big Machine, I think LaValle continues to complicate the reader’s desire to come to some satisfying moral conclusion. I  guess when I think about what doubt and belief have in common, they each require us to abandon certainty. I think that’s part of what Big Machine might be asking of us.

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