Tuesday, January 9, 2018

LULLABY ROAD :: James Anderson

Character, character, character. It says something about how well James Anderson writes character that I would pay good money to spend a day with his leading man, Ben Jones. That might not seem odd, there are loads of interesting protagonists out there. But Ben Jones has what might seem to be an interminably boring vocation. He owns a trucking service that delivers necessities to the "desert rats and eccentric exiles" of the remote Utah desert, spending his days on State Highway 117, traveling "through the heart of a hundred miles of nowhere." Snooze-fest, right? Ha. Not even close.

Ben is intriguing in his own right. A half Jewish, half Native American orphan raised by Mormons, he seems hard-pressed to avoid trouble. Well known by local law enforcement and hospital staff, Ben is simply guided by a strong moral compass that sometimes requires a little blood be shed. (There are also times Ben feels his face has been mistaken for a suggestion box.)

Add in the aforementioned "eccentric exiles" (a preacher who wanders the highway toting a huge wooden cross on his back, an oft-married dirt house-dweller whose manner and manner of dress "made you afraid to get too close for fear of attitude contamination, and your own good hygiene," a Rolls Royce-driving "countess" who moved to the area in an effort to avoid the FBI--a not uncommon reason, the owner of Ginger's Glass, Whatnots, Handmade Soap & Ballroom Dance Emporium, who abandoned her Subaru and its "Just Divorced" sign at the city limits when she arrived, and a gun-toting entrepreneur who has invented the doghouse of the future, to name a few) and you've got yourself a trucking route bursting with great stories.

James Anderson mines these stories to perfection, with language so lovely I often read passages multiple times and the wonder never ceases. The dialogue is often so smart or funny I marvel at it, wondering how it is people aren't screaming about it from the rooftops. Lullaby Road is the second in a planned trilogy about Ben and the inhabitants of Route 117 and it more than lives up to the remarkable series starter, The Never-Open Desert Diner. I highly recommend the series, and also starting with TNODD. Lullaby Road picks up after the events in the first book and there is backstory you won't want to miss or have spoiled.

Lullaby Road finds Ben unexpectedly saddled with two young children, one of whom is a mystery and potentially in danger, all while trying to come to the aid of a local icon in trouble and deliver necessities to his customers in the midst of a raging winter. Filled with charm and despair, humor and grace, Lullaby Road is another perfect piece in what will surely end up as one of my favorite series of all time.

STREET SENSE: Lullaby Road is part mystery, part lesson in the mastery of character, dialogue and atmosphere, and part contemplation of what it is to be human. I can't speak highly enough of Anderson's work, which always ends up making me feel more alive and glad to be a reader.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  So many to choose from, beginning with a couple as short and "simple" as these:

With the reflecting sun tumbling off the red mesa behind us, I felt as if I had been given the chance to walk into a painting of a life I had never known.

Some men die in childbirth.

To glorious passages such as:

I went back inside and moved the end table in front of the window and put the lamp on it and turned on the lamp. The shade threw silhouettes of devils and pitchforks against the bare walls. I liked what it did to the room, though I knew there were real devils, real evil, in the world, and Ginny and Annabelle would run across them in time and they wouldn't always look like demons or carry pitchforks. They would look like friends, husbands and wives, and lovers and cops and grocery store clerks and foster parents. It would be nice if they carried pitchforks so you could identify them. Or you had a true friend to help you decide which is which--then be there when you made the wrong choice.

COVER NERD SAYS: This cover didn't wow me, I'll be honest. It would have played more to my sensibilities if it had consisted solely of the photograph of the desert road at night. Which also would have been a super match with the cover of TNODD. But it's not an objectionable cover at all and the cutout image stands out enough that it would catch my eye on a display. And to be totally up front and fair, I'm about as far from a church person as you can get and even in image of something nice like an angel sometimes makes me think twice about whether what's inside is for me. On this occasion, is it blasphemous to say "Hell yes it is!"?

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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