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Exact Fare Only: Good, Bad & Ugly Rides on Public Transit

by Grant Buday,ed.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a tribute to the stale air of a long, cramped ride on a Greyhound or the congestion of a subway during rush hour. Yet despite – or perhaps because of – the miseries of transit, some of the contributions to Exact Fare Only, a collection of short non-fiction pieces, anecdotes, poetry, and visuals, are charged with fond observations while others try for an arch, McSweeney’s-esque playfulness.

Grant Buday, a Vancouver novelist and travel writer, has arranged Exact Fare Only into themed sections – “Strange Rides,” “The Commute” – but since almost all the tales involve some form of human or mechanical strangeness, and most take place on buses, these sections remain largely indistinct. A Vancouver of drug-addled wanderers and elderly misfits is the setting of choice, though a section dedicated to tunnels forsakes Montreal for Toronto.

The more successful entries could serve as evidence in a sociologist’s study of human behaviour: Brian Pratt, a bus driver and poet, rants about the unpleasant passengers he’s encountered over the years – he estimates that he has at least 70 problem-causing passengers each week; an interview with Bob Smith, also a bus driver, reveals much about his daily grind. Smith is frank and occasionally glib, describing how he’ll force his bus around surly car drivers, and his disappointment when a passenger mishears one of his more witty remarks. He pulls phrases from Tom Wolfe and praises the darker visions of Don DeLillo; it’s clear that he’d rather be surrounded by masterful books than predictable transit riders.

Still, Exact Fare Only doesn’t always rise above the tedium of its subject. Much of the material is prosaic and clunky, as if it were composed during the daily commute. And except for the interview with Smith, the selections are uniformly short, leaving little room to develop characters or opinions – and encouraging the suspicion that many of these writers are as impatient to get off the bus as anyone else.