I picked this one up on an impulse, wild and crazy book-consumer that I am. I found James Anderson’s The Never-Open Desert Diner a book with many virtues, but not enough of them to be entirely satisfying.
Ben Jones is an independent trucker, not quite making a living as the sole delivery service for a particular stretch of highway in Utah. He has this monopoly, not because of superior business skills, but because nobody else wants the route. It’s very remote, its few inhabitants mostly cantankerous loners. His best friend is Walt Butterfield, the ornery old owner of The Well-Known Desert Diner, which is never open. Walt faithfully renews his restaurant license every year, but if a customer shows up he runs them off. He’s been that way since his wife was raped and murdered decades ago.
Ben hasn’t been in the area long enough to be entirely accepted by the locals, but they like him OK. He figures he knows the area pretty well, but one day he’s amazed to discover, just across the highway from the diner, over a hill, a large abandoned housing development, where a model home still stands. He looks in a window and discovers a beautiful woman there.
Gradually he’s able to draw her out – with ice cream – and in time they fall in love. But Claire (that’s her name) has secrets, and people are looking for her. Ben’s livelihood and his very life will be at risk before Claire’s problems work themselves out in a night of storm and violence.
The Never-Open Desert Diner has a leisurely pace (which I actually don’t mind), but it works its way gradually from quiet comedy to thunderous tragedy. All things considered, I don’t think it really works well, though there’s some good writing here. I was particularly unhappy with how the whole thing worked out in the end.
Since the story’s set in Utah, religious elements are unavoidable. The Mormon church is treated with respect, and there’s a wandering evangelist of undetermined creed who comes off as an extremely good guy. More problematic is the sexual morality portrayed, though the story is far from being a lascivious one.
The Never-Open Desert Diner isn’t a bad read, especially if you’re in the mood for a (mostly) quiet story. But I can’t give it the highest recommendation, and I have no interest in reading the sequel.