The Never-Open Desert Diner is described as “part love story, part mystery, part meditation on place”. The main character, Ben Jones, is a nearly broke truck driver who delivers packages up and down Highway 117, a lonely road in rural Utah. Not everything he does may be completely legal; still, he is, in many ways, what can only be described as a good man.
He’s kind of man who is willing to pretend it’s his birthday and eat jalapeno cornbread “cake” with Velveeta frosting and bacon embellishments. Cake that was not “half bad. It was all bad. Whatever the recommended daily allowance of phosphorous was, after a few bites there was enough of it in our systems to meet that requirement for a lifetime and well into whatever came next. The beer was surprisingly cold, and not just welcome but medicinally necessary.”
Perhaps this should tell readers everything they need to know about this book: it’s beautifully written with a delicate sense of humor and a set of a quirky and often oddly endearing characters.
In addition to Ben and the cake-baking Lacey brothers, there’s Ginny, the pregnant high school dropout with a GED. She’s the daughter of a woman Ben once dated, is sharp as a tack, works at the local Walmart, and is semi-homeless. Still, as Ben notes toward the end of the story, she seems determined to take care of him (in a platonic kind of way).
Then, of course, we have Claire, a woman Ben meets quite accidentally and in perhaps the most unromantic of fashions—while he is looking for a quiet place away from the wind to do his business, if you will. Claire is living (illegally) in a model home that is part of an abandoned housing development; she looks out her window, and there he is. Ben returns later to apologize; Clair greets him with a revolver, and after his apology she asks “So today you decided you’d just drop by and re-mark your new territory?” Ben’s primary thought: “I didn’t want to be shot, but if I had to be shot by someone, she would be my first choice”.
It’s probably not the most traditional or even a normal way for a relationship to begin, but normal seems to have a slightly different definition in the land of the Never-Open Desert Diner. Just consider that here a sure sign of spring is seeing the local preacher toting his ten-foot cross up and down the highway: “spring through fall John lugged his wooden cross up and down 117. He had a church of sorts… Denomination unknown and unimportant. It had once been a True Value hardware store.”
Secrets also appear to be the norm along Highway 117.
With Claire comes the biggest mystery in the story. She’s a character surrounded by questions: Who is she? Why is she playing a cello that doesn’t have strings? How is she related to Walt, the surly owner of the Never-Open Desert Diner (officially known as the Well-Known Desert Diner). Why are people looking for her? But Claire is not the only character with secrets. In fact, most of the characters who end up along this lonely stretch of highway seem to have a past that they would prefer not come to light, they maybe even have a skeleton (or even a corpse) in the closet, so to speak.
Anderson provides enough clues to give readers a fighting chance at figuring out at least some of the mysteries before all is revealed. And the book has a good ending. It’s a little surprising, somewhat sad, and completely thoughtful.
This covers the “part romance” and “part mystery” parts of the book—both of which have lovely, funny, sorrowful moments. That said, Anderson’s dedication to place might be the strongest part of the novel.
His descriptions of light, wind, rain, dirt, and heat provide such vivid emotional moments that the image on his website is almost unnecessary. After all, with passages like “I tilted my head and stared up the granite wall. In the blink of an eye I was awash in an unearthly glow. It could have been a minute or ten thousand years. I forgot my name. A gust of wind swirled the light and dust into a rose-colored column that reached steadily upward until it punched a cotton-candy hole through a wide patch of baby blue sky”, who needs photos?
The Never-Open Desert Diner doesn’t lack for action, either. There’s violence, sex, car crashes, and a good amount of blood. It’s all there. Much of the book could be accurately described as a page turner. That said, the story also has a beautiful quietness. And during a time when I can’t seem to escape the Fifty Shades of Grey movie trailer, a book with this kind of subtly, lyricism, and quiet intensity isn’t just appreciated—it’s restorative.
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