There is something old-fashioned about James Anderson’s The Never-Open Desert Diner. By old-fashioned, I guess I mean honorable and by honorable, I guess I mean something that would star someone like Humphrey Bogart or Gary Cooper. The men who were honorable even when they weren’t.
Highway 117 stretches through a hundred miles of Utah’s high desert, the home of people who will not put out mailboxes because they don’t want anything to do with the government, not even the postal service. These are people who want to be alone, who don’t do kaffeeklatsches or potlucks. They are independent people, who will lend a hand when needed but will wait until asked. And they are slow to ask.
Ben Jones is an independent trucker who connects these people, driving up and down 117 every day, delivering their equipment, motorcycle parts, and their butter brickle ice cream. Walt Butterfield is the 79 years-old owner of The Well-Known Desert Diner, an immaculate diner with an intractable owner that has not been open since 1987, hence the angry scribble on one of its roadsigns that gives the book its name. Walt is reserved and intimidating, a man of few words. His life has been marked by tragedy and seems to keep fighting to live because he’s too ornery to die.
There are several other characters that enliven The Never-Open Desert Diner, all of them deserving their own book someday, but not today, not while there remains the mystery of Claire. Claire, the mysterious and enchanting woman who seems to be squatting in an abandoned housing development hidden off 117. She captures Ben’s interest and eventually his heart. She is hiding from her husband, a musician like her, and Ben is careful to keep her secret.
Too many people are interested in Ben all of a sudden, an overly-friendly roadside temptress, a reality TV show advance man, a mysterious older man named Doc who harassed a young friend of his for information. Something is up and the timing makes it seem as though Claire’s arrival must be the cause.
The Never-Open Desert Diner is one of those novels with a strong sense of place where if it were anyplace else, it would be a different story. There are subtle hints, too subtle to be foreshadowing, more of an adumbration in the landscape. Ben takes a turn-off and finds a new road that he follows and spots a beautiful hidden canyon with waterfalls. Another side road reveals an abandoned planned community, hidden out of sight behind the gentle slopes of the desert for more than twenty years. This high desert keeps revealing new secrets even after he has been driving it for decades. The land is telling us something, but we don’t know what.
Anderson’s prose often reminds me of Hemingway, the simple repetition. Take this short quote below. I chose it because it is just a bit of straightforward storytelling, not something designed to be highlighted or stuck on a meme picture card in a pretty font.
It was dark by the time I reached my duplex. It had been a dark drive. The inside of my duplex was dark. If I had ever locked the place it would have been tough to find the keyhole. I’d lost the keys years before, back when I used to drink. Back then I couldn’t get the key into the lock under a searchlight. I tried to remember the last time I had paid the electric bill. I held my breath while I fumbled for the light switch.
Notice the repeated use of dark. Before Hemingway, or more accurately, Gertrude Stein whose ideas influenced Hemingway, writers would avoid that repetition, thinking they needed to break it up with synonyms. They had little writer demons on their shoulder telling them “You’re being repetitive.” But after Hemingway, bold writers knew repetition had a force of its own. The active sentences, the implications of things not said, the insistence that the reader infer rather than receive information, all those hallmarks of Hemingway are on display. To me, this is the best kind of writing.
There are a few weaknesses. There is one character, that mysterious “Doc” (whose real name is Welper) who Anderson tries to make more three-dimensional than he should be. Instead of being multi-dimensional, he seems more like he has multiple personalities. Then, too much of the “intrigue” is not just out of sight, it’s out of the book. It ends up being explained by the personality-shifting Welper and it is just too much. International intrigue, Chinese mafia, adultery, kidnapping, attempted murder. Bah, humbug. The story on Hwy 117 is what we care about, that other stuff seems unreal and a poor choice. Anderson should have chosen a simpler, less sensational excuse to bring in the mystery.Something more on the incredibly human level at which all the rest of the book is written.
I recommend The Never-Open Desert Diner enthusiastically. Anderson has a deep understanding of and compassion for the human condition. This makes his characters rich in detail and subtlety. He writes with a laconic sense of humor, though there are a couple moments of slapstick that are oh-so-enjoyable. I loved everything about his writing and his characters. I want to give it 5 stars because I love the writing so much, but with that bit of melodrama dragged in by Welper, I just can’t. I wish Anderson had continued to focus more on the people and the story and less on the mystery. This is not really a mystery novel, it is a novel with a mystery.
I received my copy of The Never-Open Desert Diner from Blogging for Books