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The Never-Open Desert Diner


The Never-Open Desert Diner

With the release of THE NEVER-OPEN DESERT DINER by James Anderson, the literary world has received a striking gift in the vein of James Lee Burke. Although Anderson is a first-time author, his previous career as book publisher has clearly made an impression on him as he is a careful and tasteful writer who is able to find the perfect balance between drama and stoicism. Part mystery, part romance, and with a great deal of reflection on place, the novel had me turning pages until none were left.

The protagonist, Ben Jones, is a serious, contemplative and sometimes belligerent truck driver on the verge of losing his trucking company, Ben’s Desert Moon Delivery Service. An Indian (and possibly half-Jewish) orphan, Ben is skilled at navigating the deserted highway that takes him back and forth across the barren but hauntingly beautiful Utah desert and his bevy of eccentric customers. He explains early on that he has never had a real home, and thus finds the repetition of his route comforting. Even his customers, for all their wild and sometimes laugh-worthy idiosyncrasies, follow a mostly predictable course of behaviors.  Still, Ben is not one to pity, as he is intensely self-aware and prone to spouting off surprisingly profound and humorous one-liners. He asks nothing of those around him, save that they are consistent and respectful. The desert, he explains, has a way of settling offenses, and a lack of respect is perhaps the worst crime one can commit.

Though Ben’s customers are fascinating --- from the Lacey brothers, holed up in their abandoned train cars, to John, the religious nut --- one in particular stands out: Walt Butterfield. A 79-year-old veteran, Walt is as sharp and mean as they come, exactly the type of character one would expect from a Western work of fiction, without any of the predictably banal stereotypes. He owns and operates the Well-Known Desert Diner, referred to by locals as the titular Never-Open Desert Diner. Decades before, his Korean war bride experienced an unspeakable and horrifically vicious attack in the diner, and it has been practically closed ever since, save for random days when Walt opens it for a few hours. Though Ben makes frequent deliveries to Walt and even considers him a sort of friend, he wastes no time believing Walt feels similarly, with his temperamental moods and spurts of cold meanness. Anderson’s handling of the character of Walt is masterful here, respectfully distant yet so honest that the reader feels as if he is an old admired acquaintance.

"With the release of THE NEVER-OPEN DESERT DINER by James Anderson, the literary world has received a striking gift in the vein of James Lee Burke.... Part mystery, part romance, and with a great deal of reflection on place, the novel had me turning pages until none were left."

This is the Ben we meet at the beginning of the book: quiet, intensely self-aware and, despite the high stress of his financial circumstance, perhaps rather bored with his life. That all changes very quickly when he makes a random stop on his route and finds Desert Home, an apparently deserted housing development, completely empty save for one lone house. Looking for a place to relieve himself, he takes the winding, sandy path to the side of the home and is shocked to find a woman’s face staring him down from one of the windows. Humiliated, Ben takes off, only to return hours later to find the mysterious woman naked and playing a cello. Struck by her quiet beauty, Ben falls for her right then and there, though it would be a mistake to think of him as a foolish lovelorn schoolboy, as he recognizes that he probably will never get the chance to speak to her.

The next day he returns to make an apology, and the woman greets him with the barrel of a revolver. More mysterious by the minute, it is difficult not to be attracted to her brazen confidence, especially as a newcomer in the staunchly suspicious desert. Explaining that she has left her husband and must keep her location a secret, the woman, now introduced as Claire, strikes up a quick but careful friendship with Ben. And, like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, Ben’s whole life is changed.

It begins with a simple case of a stranded motorist, followed a bit too soon by another. Breaking his usual pattern --- never a good thing in his mind --- Ben stops for the second car, learning that the driver is a schoolteacher on a biking trip. The change in his routine is striking, as is the woman’s overt friendliness. Quietly suspicious, he refuses her advances and continues his day as planned. That evening, however, when he reaches the transfer station where he leaves his rig, he learns that a fellow trucker spotted the woman the day before sporting a different outfit, hair color and attitude. Believing that he is being set up for a hijacking, Ben asks that the driver keep an eye out for the devious woman. He is then called into the station supervisor’s office, where he learns that a television producer wants to ride along with him to explore the life of a trucker. Immediately it becomes clear that the woman was no ordinary traveler, but rather a sort of scout. It is here that Ben’s compassion and affection for his customers becomes apparent, as he refuses to be part of anything that intends to embarrass and poke fun at them. Still, with his company on the verge of collapse, Ben has no choice in the matter, though he makes careful demands to protect his customers’ privacy. Even as his compassion warms the reader’s heart, Anderson’s skillful handling of the situation is anything but heavy-handed.

The next day he meets Josh Arrons, a young, flashy television producer. Much to his discontent, he finds himself liking Josh, who has a similar sense of sarcastic humor and respectfully adheres to Ben’s demands. In another surprising twist, he finds that Josh’s experience of the desert, atmospheric and deadly beautiful, forces him to reconsider the route he travels every day. The beauty, conveyed to us through vivid, immediate descriptions, is enough to make any reader quickly plan a trip to the oft-overlooked area. Of course, no good moment can last in the desert, where everything from the weather to the mood is sudden, contradictory and all-or-nothing.

At the end of a long day, Josh suggests they play some music and reaches for a CD of cello music Ben received as a gift from a friend soon after he discovered Claire. He immediately becomes shifty and tense, clearly affected by the music --- and not in a good way. It would be easy to suspect that Josh is the angry husband Claire is hiding from, but the mysteries of the desert and Anderson’s literary hybrid are far more complex than that. Before he can even begin to tend to his finances, Ben is swept up in a case involving theft, violence, a whirlwind romance and the deeply hidden secrets of the people he considers friends.

For a work that combines noir with desert-diner archetypes and crime, THE NEVER-OPEN DESERT DINER is far from a predictable novel. Anderson is a blissfully self-aware author, and his characters steadfastly follow suit. That alone is enough to make it a worthwhile read, and yet he elevates the plot with vivid imagery and a deep appreciation for the people and beauty of the desert. His descriptions of the setting are nearly oppressive in that the reader can practically feel the weight of the atmosphere and the panoramic destitution of the geography. Throughout it all, the desert becomes the ultimate settler of scores, giving just as quickly as it takes away, humbling all who know it.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on February 13, 2015

The Never-Open Desert Diner
by James Anderson

  • Publication Date: November 8, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery, Romance
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway Books
  • ISBN-10: 1101906901
  • ISBN-13: 9781101906903