James Anderson’s brilliant The Never-Open Desert Diner is a tale set on Route 117, a seldom- used Utah highway. During its heyday, the diner was featured in several Hollywood movies, but now, because of its dysfunctional elderly owner, the building is as barren and windswept as its high desert location.
Driving by the diner every day is trucker Ben Jones, who is behind on his rent and his truck lease. Broke as he is, Ben can’t quite bring himself to quit delivering odds and ends to the other hardscrabble desert rats who are scratching out a precarious living in the middle of nowhere. Ben’s joyless existence changes the day he sees the silhouette of a woman playing a cello in a deserted house near the diner. Driven by curiosity, he befriends the woman and listens to her life story, which involves a broken marriage, a one-time dream of becoming a concert cellist, and a parentage as murky as his own.
Ben is a foundling, dropped off as a infant wrapped in a blanket on the steps of a Indian reservation clinic. Cellist Claire suspects, with good reason, that she is the adopted-out result of a gang rape. These two orphaned outcasts are immediately drawn together, finally daring to see a glimmer of hope in their bleak existence.
But their happiness is short-lived when a high roller claiming to be a TV producer cadges a ride-along with Ben, saying that his production company is thinking about using the area for a new reality series. At that point, everything Ben knows, or thinks he knows, about life is turned on its head. And not for the better. Rape, theft, and murder have always been lurking in the background on that lonely highway, and aided by the inclement weather (“The wind was gusting, full of sand as it crossed 117. It made the sunlight dirty, like a bandage stretched over the sky.”), the truth about Claire and her cello emerges. It isn’t pretty, but then, neither is that part of the desert.
Seldom have I read a novel more affecting than The Never-Open Desert Diner, and seldom have I encountered such memorable characters. There is Ben, a deep thinker who questions the area’s oral and written history: “History has a way of chasing gravity just like water, feeding into other parts of itself to become something else, something larger and grander, until the one pure thing it was no longer exists.” There is Preacher John, who, to atone for some long-forgotten sin, spends his days dragging a heavy wooden cross along 117. There is Ginny, a pregnant 17-year-old Walmart clerk whose family deserted her and who sees Ben as some sort of savior (although the opposite may be true). Then there is Walt, the motorcycle- collecting owner of the diner, who no longer believes in anything but revenge. But of all the book’s characters, Route 117 itself remains the most resonant. This winding piece of disintegrating blacktop provides the heart of The Never-Open Desert Diner, forever linking the desperate souls who live along it.