The Never-Open Desert Diner

Written by James Anderson — This debut novel is masterful in travelling a remote strip of high desert highway to all the important destinations of the human heart. It’s a shame it flew under the radar with its 2015 release. Recommended by the fine folks at Scottsdale, Arizona’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.

Ben Jones owns a business as a short-haul truck driver whose route takes him back and forth along a 100-mile stretch of 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. If they put out a red handkerchief by the road, he stops to get their orders for goods to be delivered from town. He describes his routine like this: “I delivered to lonely cattle ranches along the way and sometimes to the odd desert rats holed up in their aluminum trailers that rose shimmering out of the brown distance like so much tinfoil pinned against the horizon.”

The way Anderson sets up the isolation and the harsh conditions, 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. Each time one of these characters happens into a scene, there’s something interesting ahead.

Chief among these misfits 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 nearly 80, an angry geezer who restores old motorcycles. He lost his wife after she was violently attacked and raped in 1972, and the extent to which he hasn’t recovered from that loss and how he’s avenged it becomes apparent only over time. Walt has some serious secrets.

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 colourful 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.” Too bad this prized cello is stolen, and its owner wants it back. Desperately.

Soon odd events begin. Ben is flagged down by a stranger, a woman stranded with car trouble; his dispatcher hooks him up with a fellow who wants to make a TV series about truckers. If ever there were a citizen who did not want his life examined by the voyeurs of reality television, it’s Ben. But they promise him $2,000 for a ride-along, and while that may not be enough to keep the trucking company from repossessing his rig, it’s too tempting to pass up. Ben’s being set up for something; he’s just not sure what. From there the strong plot unfolds like the road to Rockmuse, going toward a place not particularly desirable, but toward an ending.

Ben is an extremely 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 these people scattered along the highway are struggling, him included. Then, it seems, the world starts to open up for him, or is it 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 is literary genre work that inspires 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.”

If you enjoy crime novels set in off-the-beaten path parts of the American West, you might also try The Far Empty by J Todd Scott, the Hard Case Crime graphic novel Triggerman, or CJ Howell’s The Last of the Smoking Bartenders.

Broadway Books
Print/Kindle/iTunes
£9.99
CFL Rating: 5 stars

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