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Books: Utah mystery finds its power in the desert light

First Published      Last Updated Apr 08 2015 04:13 pm

Utah lit » In “The Never-Open Desert Diner,” a macabre mystery and a love story cross paths on a fictional highway in central Utah.

James Anderson's unusually literary crime novel takes its atmosphere from the shifting power of the desert light on a quiet highway in central Utah.

"Any desert dweller will tell you the true beauty of a desert sunset can be best appreciated by looking in the unlikely direction, the east, away from the sun," says truck driver Ben Jones, the broke and knowing narrator of "The Never-Open Desert Diner."

The crime mystery follows Jones as he makes deliveries to the loners and quirky desert rats ­— "Between hello and good-bye was a thick slice of silence that told a story you couldn't forget even if you wanted" — who live on the make-believe desert road of Highway 117, which winds off U.S. 6, about 20 miles east of Price.

"The plot unfolds as you're actually following Ben through his day, as he is just making deliveries," Anderson says. "Little by little, what happens in those deliveries drives the plot."

After making his regular deliveries, Jones happens to pull off the highway just past the diner of his laconic friend Walt Butterfield. Out of view of the highway, at a place he passes every day, Jones sees something he's never noticed before: an abandoned housing development. "I love the whole idea that we don't always see what's there because we're not looking, we're not expecting to see it," Anderson says.

In the only built home, Jones happens to catch a glimpse of an oddly striking woman's face, with a high forehead and a wide nose and no-nonsense lips, framed with thick black hair. "It was a face with staying power," he thinks.

Later, when he's drawn back to the house, he spies the woman, Claire, sitting inside, naked and playing an imaginary cello.

As he comes to know her, Claire leads Ben Jones down the twisted rabbit hole of her mysterious past. The book is peopled with odd loners, including Butterfield, the owner of a diner he no longer opens to paying customers, and Preacher John, whom Jones watches as the preacher drags a wooden cross along highway to atone for some long-ago sin.

And there's Ginny, a pregnant punk homeless teenager, the daughter of Jones' ex-girlfriend, who becomes the truck driver's girl Friday.

As Jones drives along Highway 117, the novel tells a revenge story, a love story and a road story. "A wonderfully strange first novel" is how New York Times reviewer Marilyn Stasio summed up the book last month.

"The Never-Open Desert Diner" is the March selection of The Salt Lake Tribune's Utah Lit book club, which will take place at 12:15 p.m. on Thursday, March 26, at sltrib.com. Readers are invited to post, text or tweet comments about the book (see accompanying box for details). In addition, the author will read from his debut novel at 7 p.m. April 15 at The King's English Bookstore, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City.

The truth of literary noir • Anderson's background is as quirky as his genre-transcending book, which his publisher describes as "literary noir."

In a phone interview during a lull in his self-arranged cross-county book tour, Anderson answers questions with stories that ramble along with the charm of his book's narrator.

Anderson was born in Seattle and raised in Portland, running afoul of school authorities when he was more interested in writing his first novel at age 16 than finishing his schoolwork. After attending Reed College, for more than 20 years he ran a well-regarded independent press, Breitenbush Books.

He kept writing poetry, short stories and seven novels, but didn't attempt to publish while he was focusing on editing and publishing other people's work. Writers write, he says. "If you think publishing is what makes a writer, you're wrong," he says. "So much of this is staring at a blank piece of paper."

And besides, life provided its share of detours, including a wife and a son and a bunch of odd jobs along the way, from making documentary films to selling cars to logging to a stint driving a truck.

Finally, after his son was launched into his own life, Anderson thought about teaching and earned a master's degree in creative writing at Boston's Pine Manor College. About publishing a novel, says the now-62-year-old writer, "there comes a time when if you've always been planning on doing something, you better get to it."

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Utah Lit: ‘The Never-Open Desert Diner’

Join us at 12:15 p.m. Thursday, March 26, at sltrib.com for The Salt Lake Tribune’s March Utah Lit book club discussion of James Anderson’s debut novel. Send comments or questions in advance to ellenf@sltrib.com or jnpearce@sltrib.com. Join the live conversation by texting 801-609-8059 or sending a tweet to #TribTalk.

Author’s reading » James Anderson will read from his novel at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 15, at The King’s English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City.