BOOK REVIEW / Greyhound on the wrong side of the tracks: The Great American Bus Ride - Irma Kurtz: 4th Estate, pounds 6.99

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THE GREYHOUND bus of movies and advertising is a quintessential piece of Americana: a silver machine gliding along highways and pulling into dusty towns across the heartland. To many, it's a symbol both of America's wild vastness and American technology's mastery over it.

Irma Kurtz doesn't buy this. After three months on the buses last year, she sees a slow, run-down transport system for 'aliens and misfits', not far removed from the Third World. Buses 'scare the wits out of genteel Americans,' she writes, 'the Greyhound depot defines the wrong side of the tracks.' She meets poor people, ill people, non-white people, and (especially) people fleeing divorces and family explosions - everyone, in fact, but the wholesome, healthy Americans of the Wrigley's advertisement.

But she's not put off: 'I am a hussy of low appetites who always yearns shamelessly for rough travel.' An American exiled in London (mostly as Cosmopolitan's agony aunt) for 30 years, Kurtz is soon revelling in the primal grime of the buses (she rides 65 in all) and getting to know her fellow travellers amid the anonymity and boredom. She listens to lunatic monologues, looks after elderly ladies, and reassures nervous teenage girls, who forget her as soon as they see their boyfriends waiting for them by the roadside. Waspish portraits are her revenge.

Kurtz eschews the mythical coast-to-coast crossing for lazy zig-zags, reaching Portland, Oregon, only to swing away from nextdoor California and head for Omaha, Nebraska. And she does the trip during winter, when the top half of the country is a blizzard and the bottom a mud patch. But she isn't a killjoy. The first of the book's dozen photos - cars and asphalt disappearing into the autumn fog beside a suburban bus stop - shows the pull of the road less tritely than the usual desert vista. And she does eventually succumb to the thrill of American eccentricities, like the 'town' of Dinosaur, Utah, which turns out to be, after the bus has left her alone in the snow, nothing more than 'two nearly life-size replicas of tyrannosaurus rex and brontosaurus'.

However, her real love is not arriving, but travelling: 'the rush' as the bus pulls out of the depot, the throb of the engine as she lies awake crossing some snow-covered plain. And learning the Greyhound lore: don't take luggage (it'll get lost), don't exchange names (this loads down encounters with future possibility), and don't act scared (no need, since real crooks don't take the bus).

What happens off the bus is kept short, and scenic descriptions are sparing but effective: small towns are 'dainty husks'; much-touted Seattle is 'smug'. Just occasionally, in homely Midwestern towns, she's tempted to get off and settle down. But she soon gets back on the bus.