'The Never-Open Desert Diner' Is Beautifully Written With a Delicate Sense of Humor

A book with this kind of subtly, lyricism, and quiet intensity isn’t just appreciated—it’s restorative.

The Never-Open Desert Diner

Publisher: Caravel
Length: 288 pages
Author: James Anderson
Price: $25.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2015-02

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.

Splash image: Aged and worn vintage neon sign from


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.