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The Never-Open Desert Diner

The Never-Open Desert Diner

3.8 8
by James Anderson

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A singularly compelling debut novel, about a desert where people go to escape their past, and a truck driver who finds himself at risk when he falls in love with a mysterious woman.

Ben Jones lives a quiet, hardscrabble life, working as a trucker on Route 117, a little-travelled road in a remote region of the Utah desert which serves as a haven for


A singularly compelling debut novel, about a desert where people go to escape their past, and a truck driver who finds himself at risk when he falls in love with a mysterious woman.

Ben Jones lives a quiet, hardscrabble life, working as a trucker on Route 117, a little-travelled road in a remote region of the Utah desert which serves as a haven for fugitives and others looking to hide from the world. For many of the desert’s inhabitants, Ben's visits are their only contact with the outside world, and the only landmark worth noting is a once-famous roadside diner that hasn’t opened in years.

Ben’s routine is turned upside down when he stumbles across a beautiful woman named Claire playing a cello in an abandoned housing development. He can tell that she’s fleeing something in her past—a dark secret that pushed her to the end of the earth—but despite his better judgment he is inexorably drawn to her.

As Ben and Claire fall in love, specters from her past begin to resurface, with serious and life-threatening consequences not only for them both, but for others who have made this desert their sanctuary. Dangerous men come looking for her, and as they turn Route 117 upside down in their search, the long-buried secrets of those who’ve laid claim to this desert come to light, bringing Ben and the other locals into deadly conflict with Claire’s pursuers. Ultimately, the answers they all seek are connected to the desert’s greatest mystery—what really happened all those years ago at the never-open desert diner?

In this unforgettable story of love and loss, Ben learns the enduring truth that some violent crimes renew themselves across generations. At turns funny, heartbreaking and thrilling, The Never-Open Desert Diner powerfully evokes an unforgettable setting and introduces readers to a cast of characters who will linger long after the last page.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An exceptional book…. The novel is outstanding in every regard — writing, plot, dialogue, suspense, humor, a vivid sense of place.” - The Washington Post

"High, dry and severely beautiful.... Anderson is one fine storyteller." - Marilyn Stasio, New York Times Book Review

“James Anderson's first novel works on elements of mirage -- a mystery novel with literary shimmers.   In the end it is all there, apparent in the high heat of the desert: a great story, well-told, funny, daring, smart and deeply affecting.”  —Colum McCann, National Book Award-winning author of Let the Great World Spin

"James Anderson has written a striking debut novel —lyrical, whimsical, atmospheric and skillfully rendered." - CJ Box, New York Times Bestselling author of Badlands
"You have not read a book like The Never Open Desert Diner in a long time, if ever. Once you open its pages you will know you are in for something surprisingly enjoyable. James Anderson and his premiere novel are a serendipity that will make a mark on your brain in the most positive way." - Jackie Cooper, The Huffington Post
"An extraordinary debut."  - Milwaukee Sun-Sentinel
"Anderson ... writes with a lyrical style and allows the plot to unfold in a manner as seductive as the desert itself. Readers who revel in fiction set in the Southwest will want to join his protagonist for the ride." - Library Journal
"Anderson distills the heat and shimmering haze of the Utah desert into his fine first novel."  - Publishers Weekly
"Part love story, part mystery, part meditation on place, James Anderson's The Never-Open Desert Diner is peopled with quirky characters and peppered with fine prose that has the taste of truth. Anderson's abundant talents will certainly keep readers turning the pages." — Roland Merullo, author of Breakfast With Buddha

From the Hardcover edition.

The New York Times Book Review - Marilyn Stasio
…a wondrously strange first novel…there are a lot of sad stories on Ben's route…and Anderson tells them in a voice that's…high, dry and severely beautiful…Anderson is one fine storyteller.
Publishers Weekly
Anderson distills the heat and shimmering haze of the Utah desert into his fine first novel. Ben Jones, the owner and sole employee of Ben’s Desert Moon Delivery Service, travels up and down Utah Highway 117, making deliveries to the few locals and occasionally getting paid. Ben has come to know many of the area’s stranger residents, including Walt Butterfield, the owner of the Well-Known Desert Diner, and itinerant preacher John, who spends much of his time walking up and down 117 lugging a 10-ft. wooden cross. None of these intrigue Ben as much as the naked woman he finds miming playing a cello without a bow or strings, in a house hidden from the highway. Crimes weave in and out of this modern western, but they take a backseat to the tentative relationship that grows between Ben and Claire, the naked air cellist. Just as important as the mysteries of human entanglement are the desert’s brilliant light, torrential downpours, and vast night sky. (Feb.)
Library Journal
The arid beauty of Utah's desert is the backdrop for this debut novel that follows truck driver Ben Jones as he travels Route 117 making deliveries to a host of colorful characters. Walt Butterfield, owner of the titular diner, collects motorcycles and lives with dark memories of a horrific crime committed against his wife at the restaurant; itinerant preacher John carries a wooden cross along the highway and ministers to the spiritual needs of the locals; Fergus and Duncan Lacey live in makeshift boxcars with a putting green; musician Claire inhabits a model home in an unfinished housing development; and pregnant teenager Ginny knows Ben from years gone by when he dated her mother. With patience, a keen inner strength, and wisdom, Ben discovers that some of his customers are hiding secrets; the stories of other folks also connect in a startling fashion. Like a flash flood cascading down an arroyo, once the action begins it's nonstop. VERDICT Anderson, the founder and former publisher of Breitenbush Books, writes with a lyrical style and allows the plot to unfold in a manner as seductive as the desert itself. Readers who revel in fiction set in the Southwest will want to join his protagonist for the ride.—Patricia Ann Owens, formerly with Illinois Eastern Community Colls., Mt. Carmel
Kirkus Reviews
The great tradition of hard-boiled crime novels finds new and promising territory in the Utah desert. Carrying its own cult following after having been published independently last year, this debut novel is a stirring, atmospheric, and even mildly surreal variation on the "mean streets" detective fiction of Raymond Chandler; only it's not "mean streets" here so much as a stretch of desolate highway—State Road 117—in northern Utah. The loners, drifters, dreamers, ranchers, and survivors who live along this road get almost all their supplies from Ben Jones, a strapping, half-Indian, half-Jewish independent trucker whose sense of humor is as dry and (almost) as bleak as the surrounding landscape. One day, Ben breaks from his daily routine long enough to notice the scattered remains of a half-built housing development whose only completed building "stuck out like a sturdy tooth on an empty gum." The first time he passes by, he suspects a woman's squatting there but can't quite make her out beyond remembering an "oddly striking" face; the second time, he gets a much better look: the same woman, naked, sitting on the porch, playing a cello without strings; the third time, as you might have expected, she's pointing a gun at him. And we're off and running on a witty, rollicking, and somewhat bent mystery/romance whose mostly supporting cast includes an itinerant preacher who spends his life lugging a large wooden cross up and down the highway, a pregnant-and-sassy Wal-Mart clerk taking economics college courses, a reality TV producer whose offer to make Ben a star may not be all it's cracked up to be, and, most important of all, the widowed septuagenarian owner/operator of the novel's eponymous diner, an empty but well-maintained relic of better days, much like its volatile, two-fisted proprietor whose coarse belligerence cloaks many secrets, at least one of which is literally too awful to behold. Anderson dedicates his book in memory of such masters of hard-boiled noir as Ross Macdonald, Robert B. Parker, and James Crumley, and it's the latter's gift for poetic description, antic violence, and roadside gothic that resounds most in what one hopes will be the beginning of a beautiful series.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1 

A red sun was balanced on the horizon when I arrived at The Well-Known Desert Diner. Sunrise shadows were draped around its corners. A full white moon was still visible in the dawn sky. I parked my tractor-trailer rig along the outer perimeter of the gravel parking lot. The “Closed” sign hung on the front door. To the left of the door, as if in mourning for Superman, stood a black metal and glass phone booth. Inside was a real phone with a rotary dial that clicked out the ten white numbers. Unlike the phones in the movies, this one worked—if you had enough nickels.

Curiosity usually wasn’t a problem for me. I treated it like a sleeping junkyard dog. As a general rule I didn’t hop the fence. Jagged scars on my backside reminded me of the few times I had violated that rule. Just because you can’t see the dog doesn’t mean it isn’t out there. Sure, I look through the fence once in a while. What I see and think I keep to myself.

On that Monday morning in late May I was dangerously close to the fence. Walt Butterfield, the diner’s owner, was a junkyard Unitarian: he was a congregation of one and his own guard dog. His junkyard was The Well-Known Desert Diner, and he didn’t bark or growl before he tore your throat out. I liked him, and his junkyard. The place was a kind of odd shrine. Over the years the diner had become a regular rest stop for me as well as a source of fascination and idle speculation. It was always my first stop, even when I had nothing to deliver to Walt. Sometimes it was my last stop too.

Out of habit, I tried the front door. It was locked, as usual. This was Walt’s face to the world. Walt slept in what had been a small storage room attached to the kitchen. Behind the diner, across a wide alleyway of sand and flagstone, was a 50-by-100-footgalvanized steel World War II Quonset hut. This was where Walt really lived, alone with his motorcycles, and tools and grease and canyons of crated parts that reached to the ceiling.

Walt’s motorcycle collection totaled nine of the finest and rarest beasts ever to have graced the roadways of America and Europe. Among them was his first, a 1948 Vincent Black Shadow. It was the same motorcycle he was riding, his new Korean War bride hugging his thin waist, the day he first rode onto the gravel of what was then called The Oasis Café. He was twenty years old. She was sixteen and spoke no English. They bought the place a year later, in 1953.

Walt kept the diner, like everything else in his life, in pristine shape. I peered through the glass door at the lime-green vinyl seats of the six booths and twelve stools. The platoon of glass salt and pepper shakers stood at attention. The trim along the edge of the counter shined its perpetual chrome smile back at me. The brown and ivory linoleum tiles reflected their usual wax and polish. A 1948 Wurlitzer jukebox hunkered against the far wall. Behind the counter, the same order ticket as always hung lifeless from a wire above the stainless steel kitchen pass-through. As far as I knew it was the final ticket from the last meal prepared for a paying guest, probably sometime in the autumn of 1987.

I returned to my truck and off-loaded a heavy carton filled with the usual motorcycle parts and wheeled it to the door of the Quonset hut. On Wednesday of the previous week Walt had received some unusual freight from New York—six boxes, all different sizes. They didn’t have the sloppy heft of motorcycle parts, though that alone wasn’t what got my attention. Each carton had a different return address in New York City, but all of them were from the same sender, someone named Chun-Ja. No last name. T hey had arrived in pairs, all originating on the same day, each set of two sent through one of the big three corporate carriers—FedEx, UPS, and DHL. By special contract I delivered for FedEx and UPS, but not DHL.

I had set my four next to the two left by the DHL driver. They weren’t gone until Friday morning. That meant they had been left out for two days and two nights, which wasn’t just odd—it had never happened before in all my years of makingdeliveries to Walt.

There was really only one possible explanation for why Walt failed to bring his freight inside—he had been out of town, except to my knowledge he had no family or friends, and absolutely nowhere else to go. Given his advanced age, the logical assumption would have been that he had died of natural causes and was stretched out stiff as a board somewhere in the recesses of his diner or workshop, or lay broken in the desert after an accident on one of his motorcycles. You had to know Walt to appreciate just how far-fetched such death scenarios were.

I pounded on the door of the Quonset hut. Just once. Walt’ shearing was perfect. At seventy-nine, all of him was damn near perfect, except his attitude toward people. No matter where he was on the property, or what he was doing, he had a sixth sense that told him if someone was around. If he didn’t show himself, he was ignoring you. The smartest and safest action you could take was to leave—the sooner the better. The only thing pounding and yelling did was piss him off. If there was one seventy-nine-year-old man on the planet you didn’t want to piss off, it was Walt Butterfield.

I was probably the only person to have seen the inside of Walt’s Quonset workshop in at least twenty years. These occasional excursions into Walt’s world, always by gruff invitation, never lasted longer than the time it took for me to slip freight off a hand truck.

I left the new box of parts next to the door and did the smart thing. It was a piece of good luck that Walt hadn’t answered my knock. I might have done something stupid, like ask him where he’d been or what was in the six cartons.

I always hoped to catch Walt, or rather have him willing to be caught. On a handful of occasions we sat in the closed diner. Sometimes he talked, though usually not. I always listened when he wanted to talk. A few times he actually fixed and served me breakfast in the diner. He had been around the area longer than anyone, or at least longer than anyone who had a brain that worked and a reliable memory.

I returned to my truck determined not to dwell on the strange freight or Walt’s absence. The really big mysteries in life never troubled me much. How the pyramids were built or whether Cortés was a homosexual didn’t bounce my curiosity needle. On the other hand, Walt’s absence and his odd freight were hard to resist. The diner and I contemplated each other. Like Walt himself, it had a long and colorful past.

U.S. 191 is the main highway north and south out of Price, Utah. North led to Salt Lake City. Due south took you to Green River, and eventually Moab. The turnoff for State Road 117 is about twenty miles from the city limits of Price. Ten miles east, down 117, on the left, surrounded by miles of flat, rugged nothing, you came upon The Well-Known Desert Diner.

From 1955 to 1987 the diner appeared in dozens of B movies. There were the desert horror-thriller movies, the desert biker mayhem movies, and the movies where someone, usually an attractive young woman, drove across the desert alone and some bad shit happened.

Once in a while it’s possible to catch one of these low-budget gems on cable. I always cheered when the diner filled the screen. My personal favorites involved atomic monsters or aliens terrorizing small-town desert locals. The locals eventually triumphed and saved the planet. Their victory was usually accomplished with little more than a car battery, a couple of Winchester rifles, and a visiting college professor who had a crazy theory—and a wild, beautiful daughter.

The diner was originally built in 1929. Its pale gravel driveway, antique glass-bubble gas pumps, white adobe walls, and green trim made it seem familiar, almost like a home you had known all your life but never visited. Even the most hardened, sun-struck driver slowed down and smiled.

Two billboards, one facing 191 South and another facing 191 North, advertised the diner to traffic. “Homemade pie . . . Cool drinks . . . Just ahead.” The billboards were aged and faded. Through the years so many people had stopped to find the diner closed that one irate motorist spray-painted the northbound billboard to read: “The Never-Open Desert Diner.” Though this was not entirely true, it was true enough. On that rare occasion when it had not been true, the experience had turned out to be an unfortunate event for those who found the front door unlocked and Walt behind the counter. Though I didn’t know for certain, I’d always suspected that infrequently Walt took down the “Closed” sign and unlocked the door just to lure people in so he could run them off.

I emptied the last drops of coffee from the thermos into my ceramic mug and considered myself lucky, even though business was getting so bad I had been floating my diesel on a Visa card and trying not to wonder if I could survive another month. Still, every morning I got up feeling like I was headed home. To be sure, my luck was often hard luck, but good luck all the same, though lately I had felt more and more like a grown man still living at home with his poverty-stricken, ailing, and peculiar parents—which might have actually been the case if I’d had any.

Under my skin I wasn’t feeling nearly as lucky as I had in times past. Below that was a rising shiver of cold desperation. Things had to change. I wanted them to change. Like most people who said they wanted change, all I wanted was enough change to keep everything the same, only better.

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. The brakes hissed, and I glanced over at the diner one more time before I pulled out onto 117 to begin the rest of my day.

Meet the Author

JAMES ANDERSON grew up in the Pacific Northwest. He is a graduate of Reed College, and received his MFA in creative writing from Pine Manor College.  His short fiction, poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in many magazines, and he previously served as the publisher and editor-in-chief of Breitenbush Books. The Never-Open Desert Diner is his first novel.

From the Hardcover edition.

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The Never-Open Desert Diner 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
rhonda1111RL More than 1 year ago
4 STARS It makes me want to go drive out that way and enjoy the desert. I would probably one of the lost ones if I did that. He describes the scenery really well. The story starts off slowly building up to more mysteries, more stories about the people in the area. I wanted some different endings on some of the storylines. I liked some of the endings really well. Ben Jones is a truck driver who drives up and back on one road. He carries deliveries for UPS and Fedex. and for others who hire him off 117. He is in deep debt. He is a orphan. They think Ben has a Indian father and a Jewish mother. There a lot of stories that we learn about different characters. some sad, some criminal and some you wanted things to go right for. There is a lot of worn down worn out places and people but there is some hope and light too. I was given this book and asked in return to give it a honest review of The Never-Open Desert Diner.
Palegirl More than 1 year ago
Maybe due in part to my recent move to the desert, I found i really connected to this novel. Not the experiences, but the landscape. This is another novel in which the landscape is as much a character as the people are. A beautiful but unforgiving character. The people in the story are formed by their relationships with the desert. The characters are well-developed and never overdone or larger than life. I can picture them clearly. The writing paints a vivid picture overall. The story is solid and the prose is subtle and gorgeous. I found myself completely immersed; thinking of the story and quotes from the novel even when I wasn't actively reading. I highly recommend this to anyone who love well-crafted literary fiction.
Palegirl More than 1 year ago
Maybe due in part to my recent move to the desert, I found i really connected to this novel. Not the experiences, but the landscape. This is another novel in which the landscape is as much a character as the people are. A beautiful but unforgiving character. The people in the story are formed by their relationships with the desert. The characters are well-developed and never overdone or larger than life. I can picture them clearly. The writing paints a vivid picture overall. The story is solid and the prose is subtle and gorgeous. I found myself completely immersed; thinking of the story and quotes from the novel even when I wasn't actively reading. I highly recommend this to anyone who love well-crafted literary fiction.
feather_lashes More than 1 year ago
The Never-Open Desert Diner is a standalone mystery novel written by debut author James Anderson. It is a story that follows a trucker: Ben who makes deliveries to people who choose to live in the barren Utah desert. Off the grid? Um…yes. Ben is pretty much these people’s only contact with the world outside of the desert. They ask for stuff, Ben brings them stuff. It’s a routine that works for everyone involved. But when a beautiful cello player: Claire enters the scenario, everything goes haywire. Although The Never-Open Desert Diner is marketed as a mystery, it didn’t seem like a traditional mystery to me. Yes, there were lots of questions that needed answers but what I thought was focal about this book was the imagery. In a Utah desert setting that is thought to be completely void of life, Mr. Anderson brings everything to life and that was my favorite thing. Being a former truck driver, book publisher, and an award-winning documentary producer all helped I’m sure. So while this wasn’t an over-the-top awesome mystery in my opinion, I certainly did enjoy it overall. The writing was good and I highlighted several quotes that I'd like to hang on my wall - cross-stitch style to keep in line with the theme ;) Also, I have visited the American desert several times and Mr. Anderson brought some of those memories back to life for me so for that I thank him. If you enjoy a variety of adult fiction, then check it out! My favorite quote: “In all those stories about people who sold their souls to the devil, I never quite understood why the devil was the bad guy, or why it was okay to screw him out of his soul. They got what they wanted: fame, money, love, whatever—though usually it turned out not to be what they really wanted or expected. Was that the devil's fault? I never thought so. Like John Wayne said, "Life's tough. It's even tougher when you're stupid.”"
JBronder More than 1 year ago
Ben is 38 years old and although he owns his business he hasn’t made a profit in years. He is looking to lose his truck and everything he has. But instead of dwelling on that, he continues his deliveries on route 117. This is a highway in the Utah desert full of odd ball people that don’t get regular mail or deliveries. They rely on Ben. Each character has a story and some odd actions but you can tell they all have a place in Ben’s heart. One of the main ones is Walt. He owns the Well-Known Desert Diner that is never open. One day Ben stumbles upon a beautiful woman, Claire in an abandoned house playing a cello. He can tell she has some trouble in her past but Ben pursues her and they both fall in love with each other. But her past and others is about to catch up with them. Strangers are around and taking an interest in Ben. Claire’s husband shows up looking for her and trouble and bodies start piling up. I felt for Ben, here he is about to lose his livelihood. He has a mixed background and is a loner. He is almost perfect to deliver on Route 117. And he does not plan on stopping until he has no other choice. I loved all the different characters. The brothers that live in two boxcars, the young pregnant girl that was kicked out of her home, and Walt. Something happened with his wife and it has destroyed him. But there is something to the event and his past is not going to stay hidden for long. This is a good story that has all kinds of emotions attached. Love, heartache, loss, and the mystery of what happened. This book does take a little to get going but while you learn of the different people and locations you won’t really notice. When things start to happen they are fast and furious. I received The Never-Open Desert Diner from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Connie57103 More than 1 year ago
This book starts out with me questioning the gist of the story. But soon after, I came to like the characters on Ben's freight route. And, who is the mystery lady squatting in the model home in the middle of the desert? Doesn't someone own that property? Then, the story starts to appear like a mirage in the deep desert. The closer you get to finding out what is going on, you are hooked onto one incredible, wild ride like no other. Ben drove on a route from point A to point B and back in the middle of nowhere, Utah. His clients were too poor and too recluse to pay him. Just when he learned his last haul was approaching, a series of very bizarre, and maybe a little sick, incidents started happening around him. He gets pulled into all of the chaos, but manages to be the bigger man. By the time his trucking days are done, I didn't know whether to feel sorry or elated for him. This is definitely a crazy ride; and a good one at that! Thank you James Anderson, Crown Publishing, and NetGalley for giving me a free ARC copy of the book to read and give my honest review.
bjdoureaux More than 1 year ago
Ben Jones drives a truck down a long stretch of nearly abandoned highway through the Utah desert, making deliveries to people who, for one reason or another, prefer to be left alone. When he meets Claire, he finds he’s drawn to her, not really caring what she’s running from, and she’s obviously running from something. As the mystery unfolds, it seems to all be connected to was has become known as The Never-Open Desert Diner, and something that occurred there years before. But Ben doesn’t realize just how deep he’s gotten himself, and how he, and those few he cares for, could be hurt. This is James Anderson’s debut novel. With the exception of a few transitions that felt abrupt, or a little confusing, the novel is very well-written. It’s definitely more literary than entertaining. It starts off slow, and I may have stopped reading had this not been a book I was reading for review. However, once I was about one third of the way in, the story finally grabbed me. I think the problem, for me, is that there doesn’t seem to be a clear plot at the beginning. It’s not until the last half of the novel that everything starts to fall into place, and you realize that everything had a purpose. I think the saving grace of this novel is the character of Ben Jones. I really cared what happened to him. Some content warnings: There is lots of cursing, a mild sex scene, and some crude humor. I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books in return for an honest review.
Deb-Krenzer More than 1 year ago
This was a different kind of book, but I liked it a lot. It was an interesting story about a man who travels one highway back and forth everyday delivering packages for Fed Ex and UPS. You would think that would be a pretty boring story, but it's the eccentric people he meets along this route that really make the story. The author gives you such an insight into the characters that you really think you know them. It's a curious tale in the fact you wonder why these people live miles away from anyone or anything. What do they have to hide? They are all paranoid and don't trust anyone. I began this journey and the things I discovered from the author out in the middle of that desert made into a GREAT story. While I did not especially like the ending, I loved the ride. Huge thanks to Crown Publishing and Net Galley for allowing me the opportunity to read, review and take this fantastic trip with Ben along Highway 117.