A Subtle, Insightful Debut Novel & a Brilliant Atmospheric Rendering of the Utah Desert

Never-Open-Desert Diner3The Never-Open Desert Diner by James Anderson
Published March 22, 2016
Crown Publishing
Source: theReadingRoom Advanced Readers Program ARC

“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. 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.” Source: Penguin Random House.



“Most people associate the desert with what is missing – water and people. They never think of the one thing the desert has more of – light. So much light.”

Ben, a truck driver, delivers goods to hermits living up and down a lonely dead-end road in the arid Utah desert. His customers include two eccentric brothers, ranchers, a pregnant woman with unmatched cravings for butter brickle ice-cream, a preacher who repents by sporting a humongous cross on his back while traveling the highway, a cellist who ‘plays’ her instrument in the nude (without a stringed bow), and the aging owner of a never-open (yet functioning and registered) diner once of movie-fame.

Mysterious occurrences arise; the past holds histories some would rather leave uncovered, and others that may yet bring salvation. There are mistakes that follow some to the end, snap judgments resulting in tragic consequences, misunderstandings that lead to unfortunate rifts, love that is returned, spurned, forsaken, and rekindled (not just between lovers, but between families and neighbors), and above all, there is the wisdom gained in contemplating the vastness and (seeming) emptiness of the desert.

*swoon* / falls over / *fanning self and smelling the salts*

Within moment of starting The Never-Open Desert Diner, I wanted to crawl up into its pages, to become fully overwhelmed and swallowed whole by the intoxicating world that Anderson brings into being. A world that is utterly raw, and vivid, and unflinchingly honest, even in its deceptiveness, and that felt more real for me than much of my conscious experience.

It would be difficult to overstate how much I loved this book. An absolutely brilliant, gritty-noir, rich, authentic rendering of unconquered frontiers,The Never-Open Desert Diner transported me elsewhere like few works of fiction ever have. Incidentally, ‘the West’ has been coming up some in my reading list recently (just finished an excellent history, The Rivers Ran Backward: The Civil War on the Middle Border and the Making of American Regionalism), so coming across this book now holds for me that aura of inevitability, or of a grander design, or at least of a little bit of magic(al coincidence..)

The atmosphere alone would garner 5 stars from me, but I also happened to love the characterizations (and our protagonist, Ben, who is a quiet but kind, moral, beautiful human being), the pacing (thoughtful, deliberate, yet also suspenseful), and the insights imbuing each page (filled with profundity for those choosing to discern the meaning of Anderson’s music). And, most of all, I love how Anderson managed all these effects with such subtlety. Bravo! Absolutely magnificent debut novel!

A Note About the Rating:
I have no illusions that my reviews are in any way ‘objective’ (there is no such thing). Still, most of the time I try to at least distance myself a bit from how I feel about a book and what I think about it and its merits, and so I’ve rated plenty of books I’ve disliked at 4 or 5 stars. With this review, I’m leaning a bit the other direction -I’m writing this from the depths of my heart/soul/being/something other than my cognition. Which may be a good thing – an indication that Desert Diner gripped me in more than an intellectual way (which is how I usually make sense of life). Perhaps, in fact, I should add one more star, as this is a rare book that shocked me out of my analytical frame of mind into a dreamy, inspired one.

Other Related Notes:
– Anderson’s flow is mostly unbroken, but the poeticism of his prose is not always consistent. His phrasing is never awkward, but at times, more melodious than others. Still, this is a minor point for a debut author of such skill in other dimensions, a bit of roughness around the edges that I’m confident someone of Anderson’s talent can learn to polish with more writing under his belt.

– This is a brooding, gritty, subtle character study – both of our human hermits and of the desert/ what it symbolizes. There are no bold declarations of feelings/love, not much talking even, there’s no conventional endings, no action scenes, no neat resolutions, and the like. If you’re in the mood for a ‘mystery’, for an action-packed Western, for witty dialogue, or for any number of things this book is not, you may not enjoy it.

I received a copy from the publisher via The Reading Room. But, it turns out that I had forgotten I entered this giveaway on RR, and so also purchased this book – I was that excited about it. Which, in retrospect, I’m glad I did, because I would absolutely like to support this author.


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