"LULLABY ROAD," by James Anderson, Crown, 320 pages (f) (16 and up)
It’s easy to fall in love with the open road. The possibilities just down that next stretch or bend or curve can be the calm that keeps one moving — for better and for worse. In few places is the road more open than in Utah where a route is often little else than pavement, earth and sky.
Although James Anderson’s latest novel "Lullaby Road" centers on a fictitious stretch of highway in eastern Utah, his images of desolate high desert motorways will be very real to any reader who’s driven beyond the Wasatch Front. Silence, a potential for danger and an arresting landscape are familiar elements of highway travel in most parts of Utah. For local truck driver Ben Jones, Anderson’s unlikely protagonist, they are trusted and preferred companions.
Jones is back after his debut in Anderson’s first novel "The Never-Open Desert Diner," still clinging to his chosen life of isolation and routine behind the wheel of his 28-foot tractor-trailer. One chilled morning, Jones finds himself with traveling companions: his neighbor’s baby foisted into his cab while its mother goes to take a final, and a 4-year-old left for him at a gas station with Jones’ name pinned to its shirt.
The story could devolve into Mr. Mom-like antics, but Anderson doesn’t go that direction. Instead, he uses these two passengers to reflect Jones: calm, watchful, quiet and requiring only the basics. These characteristics make Jones a good truck driver and good to have around, which is how Jones likes to see himself, despite his loner persona. It’s also how Anderson wants us to see his main character, and we do — we like Ben Jones because he’s the kind of guy who babysits while driving his daily route.
It matters that Anderson makes a protagonist we like. There’s power in creating a sympathetic narrator, and Anderson uses this power to make his points about redemption, about suffering, about unlikely beauty and the realities of being both good and bad. Anderson’s story could be trite: the hardscrabble guy who’s thrown into everybody’s small-town business; the private man with private troubles who can’t say no when asked for help. But Anderson makes Jones just a little bit better than the rest of us. And because Jones is flawed, honest about these flaws, and choosing to work beyond the limitations of these flaws, he’s a little bit like a superhero — and everybody likes a superhero story.
Anderson’s prose is quick and sparse, but also building and rich, much like the desert in which he sets his narrative. He creates seemingly forgotten towns that yield quirky characters choosing an out-of-the-way life: the woman who arrived driving her grandchildren in a silver Rolls-Royce; the man who walks 10 miles a day hauling a life-sized crucifixion cross up and down Route 117; the Mormon state trooper who sometimes stops for coffee and “seem(s) to be the only real law” that ever makes it to this part of the state.
As the narrator, Jones hints that everybody’s back story could be its own novel, and we trust him not only because everybody trusts Ben Jones, but because Anderson has made it clear that things in the desert are always more than they seem. Of course there’s more to "Lullaby Road" than a short-haul trucker carrying a load of children and plenty of interesting characters who find themselves willing to work together despite their inclination for solitude. Anderson offers intrigue, suspense, a few good fist fights and some Mormon quips that would give Joseph Smith himself a hearty chuckle. But it’s his underlying thread about the human need to hide and to be found (and sometimes found out) that makes this novel such a pleasant detour from whatever road a reader is traversing. This book is absolutely worth your time.
Content advisory: "Lullay Road" contains no sexual or violent content, but does have strong language.
If you go …
What: James Anderson book signing
When: Thursday, Jan. 25, 7 p.m.
Where: The King’s English, 1511 S. 1500 East
Note: The signing line is for those who buy a copy of the featured book from The King’s English.