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by James Anderson
Crown, February 2018
300 pages
ISBN: 1101906545

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Ben Jones who is, despite his name, a forty-year-old half-Native American, half-Jewish orphan raised by Mormons, is back driving his rig on a delivery route on Utah's Highway 117. It's a run that takes him through the Utah high desert and his customers are a mixed lot of runaways and castaways who prefer Ben's service to advertising their location by sticking a mailbox up on the highway.

Ben first appeared in last year's THE NEVER-OPEN DESERT DINER, in which he suffered a terrible calamity. It was summer then and now winter is coming on and Ben is doing his best to do his job and recover from the events of the past. The Desert Diner is still not open.

Before Ben can properly set out on his route on this cold October morning, he is landed with two improbable repsonsibilities. A man he barely knows, Pedro from the tire place, has left his four-year-old son in a truck stop with a note pinned to his front begging Ben to take care of him. The child comes along with a large and very protective dog. For various reasons, Ben picks the kid and the pooch up and drives off, only to meet his next-door neighbour, who hands him her infant to baby sit while she takes an exam. This might seem to be a set-up for obvious slapstick on the worn out theme of helpless male and awkward children, but Anderson does not do obvious.

Nor, in fact, does Ben. He takes the children (both of whom turn out to be girls) and drives off with them until he can make more satisfactory arrangements. The reason he does is that Ben is a good person. He's in fact what some of his forbears would have called a mensch. He was not always so. In fact the local police, or what there are of them, view him with some alarm. But the years and particularly the last year have rubbed some of the rough edges off him. Though not all - at one pivotal moment he acts appallingly and takes a beating in consequence.

LULLABY ROAD is closer to a picaresque novel than it is to a more tightly-plotted thriller. It is full of incident, suspense, and mystery, but these occur strung out along the road Ben takes back and forth, over and over, in his quest to make things right for the child entrusted to him. We meet those who live along this route, the fictional Utah 117 - among them, The Preach, a man named John who bears a heavy cross on his shoulders up and down a stretch of the highway; Phyllis, the "Countess," who had arrived a few years ago driving a silver Rolls with her two grandchildren in the back seat; Los Ojos Negros, three mysterious and possibly illusory women who run a itinerant taco stand and help Ben where they can.

Two factors hold it all together and keep the book well in range of the plausible if strange. One is Ben himself, who narrates the whole thing and who takes a jaundiced view of the proceedings. The other is the quality of the prose, which is superb, balanced, lyric in the best sense of the word, compelling. Ben is your classic observer - he can really see. Just consider the opening passage of the book:

A momentary silence was all that marked the passing of summer into winter....Late in the evening I lay half-awake in my single bed and knew the silence meant the season had changed. I like to think I know a thing or two about silence. Real silence is more than the absence of sound: it is something you feel. A few heartbeats earlier a steady wind scattered the leftover sounds from evening...all the usual muffled racket of nearby lives. Then there was nothing, nothing at all as if the desert and everyone in it had vanished and left nothing behind but an indifferent starless light.

That's the voice and that's the eye that carries us through the book. And that's what makes it impossible to put down. Read it. You'll see what I mean.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, January 2018

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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