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Twists and turns on a lonely desert highway

'The Never-Open Desert Diner' By James Anderson. Caravel Books, 288 pages, $25

Utah Highway 117, "surrounded by flat, rugged nothing," seems to glow under the scorning desert heat as Ben Jones makes his daily deliveries to those few locals who live just off the road and, for whatever reason, refuse to use the Post Office. It's a hard, lonely life for the owner of Ben's Desert Moon Delivery Service and he gets paid so little — if anything at all — that Ben may lose his truck and the small apartment he rents.

But Ben thrives on the solitude, making the road as much of a home as he has ever had and the eccentrics who live along his route a kind of family. In this fine debut, James Anderson's graceful prose and evocative look at the desert elevate this untraditional mystery that would be kin to novels by James Sallis and the late Jim Crumley. On the surface, "The Never-Open Desert Diner" is a road trip, but the seemingly simple plot soon becomes a complex look at secrets and what can drive a person to violence.

One of Ben's regular stops is for Walt Butterfield, the elderly owner the Well-Known Desert Diner that, in its heyday, often appeared in movies. Walt closed the café in 1987, though it is still advertised on billboards, one of which has been spray-painted "The Never-Open Desert Diner."

Ben encounters a woman pretending to play a cello in a model home located in a never built subdivision just off the highway. That echoes back to a decades-old horrific crime. As Ben is drawn into a new crime, he also becomes closer to those on his route, including a preacher who drags a 10-foot wooden cross along the highway and two brothers whose home is boxcars mounted on cinderblocks.

While Highway 117 itself eventually dead ends, Anderson keeps his plot on continues twists and turns. The crimes are less important than the relationships the characters form — and in some cases don't form -- with each other during a visit to "The Never-Open Desert Diner."

Oline H. Cogdill can be reached at olinecog@aol.com.

Meet the author

James Anderson will discuss "The Never-Open Desert Diner" at 7 p.m. March 24 at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables, 305-442-4408.

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