How could any editor reject this novel? Its setting may be stark, its ending may not be sunshine-and-apple-pie, but it is nonetheless an exceptional book.
James Anderson’s first novel, “The Never-Open Desert Diner,” was published in February of last year by Caravel Books, after many larger houses rejected it. Despite some glowing reviews, that edition sold poorly, as so many first novels do. That, in today’s publishing world, should have been the end of the story.
Except that somehow, probably thanks to a determined agent and an alert editor, “The Never-Open Desert Diner” has received an all but miraculous second chance, and has been published anew by Crown.
The novel is outstanding in every regard — writing, plot, dialogue, suspense, humor, a vivid sense of place.
Its protagonist, Ben Jones, is a 30-something truck driver who makes deliveries “on a particularly remote hundred-mile stretch of Utah’s high desert.” An orphan of uncertain parentage, Ben is single, amiable but prickly and rapidly going broke.
His best friend, Walt Butterfield, is the angry 79-year-old owner of the Well-Known Desert Diner, which he bought in 1953 and closed in 1972 after a tragedy there. He still lives behind the never-opened diner and sometimes has Ben in for dinner but almost no one else. Ben calls his friend a junkyard dog who “didn’t bark or growl before he tore your throat out.” Still, surly Walt is the proud owner of both a classic 1948 Vincent Black Shadow motorcycle (they write songs about those babies) and a vintage 1948 Wurlitzer jukebox.
Into this small, surprising sunbaked world comes beautiful, petite, elusive Claire, who’s hiding in a deserted house. One day Ben peeks in her window and glimpses her: She’s naked and seems to be playing a cello. Seeing him, she demands, “Are you a music lover or just a pervert?” and pulls a gun. Clearly, romance looms.
Mysterious out-of-towners start shadowing Ben. He and Walt have a bloody fistfight inspired by their mutual interest in Claire. We meet John, founder of the First Church of the Desert Cross, who spends his days carrying a 10-foot wooden cross along a deserted highway. And Ben befriends Ginny, a homeless, eight-months-pregnant teenager who dreams of attending college.
In time, Ben’s pursuit of Claire grows complicated, something valuable vanishes, people die violently and he’s accused of a crime. More excitement follows, but rather than detail it I’ll offer samples of Anderson’s writing:
“A red sun was balanced on the horizon when I arrived at the Well-Known Desert Diner. Sunrise shadows were draped around its corners. A full moon was still visible in the dawn sky.”
“The highway ahead lolled in sunlight. It was mine and it made me happy. It didn’t bother me that it was mine because no one else wanted it.”
“Since the first desert wanderer dying of thirst, mirages had appeared in the distance, promising water only to deliver more parched earth. The closer you came the farther the promise retreated.”
“Rich people always had someone to call who could arrange something the average guy couldn’t get done. . . . The only call the poor man could make was to Jesus. If Jesus didn’t answer, Smith and Wesson always did.”
On a restaurant’s barbecued rattlesnake sandwiches: “It was all for the tourists. . . . It was really chicken, which explained why so many people said, ‘It tastes like chicken.’ ”
A desert mystery: “An entire Boy Scout troop vanished for a week. The boys all eventually showed up in good condition, though with no memory of what happened. The adult leaders were never found.”
I don’t know who buys and reads first novels these days. Saints, perhaps. But I think it’s a mistake to keep reading the same series by the same writers over and over, no matter how good the writers are. Reading isn’t monogamy; you can play around all you like, and there’s much that’s wonderful out there. “The Never-Open Desert Diner,” for example.
Patrick Anderson reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
By James Anderson
Crown. 295 pp. $26