“Lullaby Road: a Novel” (Crown), by James Anderson
The road stretches long — and hard — in a remote area of Utah that trucker Ben Jones has been traveling nearly 20 years. It’s not exactly a Jack Kerouac road trip as this bleak stretch of road known as Route 117 is filled with treacherous curves, unpredictable weather and people more eccentric and peculiar than any beat poet imagined.
As he did in his 2015 debut, “The Never-Open Desert Diner,” James Anderson delivers an unconventional mystery melding near lyrical prose with a strong sense of atmosphere and an affinity for oddball characters — even the most outlandish are believable. A sense of the menacing hangs over the plot of “Lullaby Road,” and when violence erupts, it’s expected, yet still surprising.
“Lullaby Road” works well as a story about isolation, loss, parenting and predators.
In this story, Ben is putting diesel in his rig when the manager of the Stop ‘n’ Gone Truck Stop tells him that something has been left for him at the eighth fuel island. The “something” turns out to be a child about 5 or 6 years old with a note pleading for Ben to take the youngster named Juan because of “Bad Trouble.”
The child is accompanied by a large protective white dog. Ben has no intention of taking the child, and especially not the dog. But the weather has turned frigid and the seedy truck stop manager isn’t an option. His next-door neighbor further complicates his passenger list by insisting that he take her infant daughter along; her baby sitter is sick and the new mother has to be at her job at Walmart.
So begins Ben’s most unusual trek, making his deliveries of water, food, mail and supplies to far-flung homes of those who relish the remoteness. Along the way, Ben comes across his friends, preacher John who drags a life-size crucifix along the highway, a state trooper who’s on duty only if he wears his hat and an ex-coal miner who survives with odd jobs. But danger rears up as Ben dodges a speeding semi that almost crashes into him and as he eludes people with guns. The child and the dog hold the key to painful secrets.
Anderson evocatively illustrates the beauty and harshness of Utah’s high desert while also delving deep into the characters and their motives for living where they do. The product of foster homes, the flawed and fascinating Ben just tries to get by each day, doing the right thing, while relishing the terrain’s vastness, “drawn toward it, into it, like it was some crazy lover forever promising passion and never love.”