*****The Never-Open Desert Diner

Utah Highway

photo: Bhanu Tadinada, creative commons license

By James Anderson – This debut novel is masterfully travels a remote strip of high desert highway to all the important destinations of the human heart. Recommended by the fine folks at Scottsdale’s Poisoned Pen bookshop, it checks a lot of genre boxes. It isn’t typical crime fiction, though there are crimes in it. It has a nice dose of both mystery and romance. It’s inescapably a Western, as it takes place in a desolate section of Utah. The one genre it doesn’t draw from is science fiction, though strange things certainly do happen out there in the back of beyond.

I would put this unforgettable 2015 book on my short list of “must-reads.” Reviewer Patrick Anderson in The Washington Post calls it “outstanding in every regard—writing, plot, dialogue, suspense, humor, a vivid sense of place.” Agreed, whole-heartedly.

Ben Jones owns a business as a short-haul truck driver whose route takes him back and forth along a hundred-mile stretch of Utah highway 117, between Price and the fictional former coal-mining town of Rockmuse. (For purposes of the novel, Anderson has relocated this highway about 40 miles east of its IRL location.) He makes deliveries for FedEx, UPS, and other companies to the scattered residents along the route, and, if they put out a red handkerchief by the road, he stops to get their orders for goods to be delivered from town.

Anderson sets up the isolation and the harsh conditions so effectively that Ben’s description of his clients—“Such folks were a special breed”— is almost superfluous. You anticipate meeting some real characters hidden away out there, and you do. Chief among them is Walt Butterfield, owner-operator of The Well-Known Desert Diner, though locals have amended that to the more accurate “Never-Open Desert Diner.” Walt is an angry geezer who restores old motorcycles. He lost his wife years earlier after an episode with some violent customers, and the extent to which he hasn’t recovered becomes apparent only over time. Each time any of Anderson’s characters wander into a scene, something interesting happens.

Ben happens upon a barely started housing development across the road from the diner, hidden by a rise, and containing only one house. Inhabited. The woman who lives there plays a cello with no strings, except, it transpires, those of Ben’s heart. About their initial prickly contacts, Ben gives one of his typically colorful and insightful comments: “I knew from experience that if you’re about to do something you probably shouldn’t do, the best advice you can give yourself is not to think about it too long. It ruins the surprise when the worst happens.” Soon odd events begin, and the strong plot unfolds like the road in front of Ben, going toward a place not particularly desirable, but barreling toward an ending.

Ben is a likeable and perceptive narrator, with especially acute radar for bullshit. Yet he looks upon the troubled and eccentric people he encounters with a nonjudgmental, compassionate eye. He respects their desire to be left alone. All of them are struggling, him included. When the world starts to open up for him, is it real or just another desert mirage?

This is the kind of story that really couldn’t take place anywhere but in such a remote location. The isolation engenders insights as well as eccentricity. It has those quality of literary genre work that inspire closing the book for a moment for reflection and a head-nod. The lyrical language in talking about such a dusty and forlorn place elevates the story and makes it unforgettable: “The highway ahead lolled in sunlight. It was mine and it made me happy. It didn’t bother me that it was mine because no one else wanted it.”

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