Reno Native Tackles Many Kinds of Borders in Darkly Funny First Novel

FinalI’m a bit of a cad when it comes to books, every bit the “read ‘em and forget ‘em” type. When you work in a bookstore, it’s a challenge to stay current. Books are typically devoured months in advance, and sometimes it’s a struggle to remember what you liked about a book by the time it hits bookshelves.

Other times, you read a book and cannot wait to recommend it, to press it into the hands of eager readers. Don Waters’ Sunland (University of Nevada Press, $26) is that kind of book: smart, literary fiction that is instantly engaging and happily unpredictable. It’s a slim, ambitious book that tackles life, death, love and loss, but it has no ego—it isn’t full of itself. Waters currently lives in Portland, Oregon, but he was born and raised in Reno. This isn’t a “local boy makes good” column, but I can assure you that Sunland is worth your time and attention. It delivers laughs, but not all of it is lighthearted. Loss is lurking everywhere in Sunland, but Waters keeps things moving and expertly balanced.

Sid Dulaney lives in Tucson, where he’s recovering from an unfaithful girlfriend who gave him an STD. Much of the action in Sunland revolves around Paseo Del Sol, the retirement village that houses Sid’s grandmother. Sid wants to be a full-time teacher, but most of his income stems from the low-cost medications he smuggles across the border from Mexico and resells at a modest markup to his grandmother’s ailing contemporaries. Sid’s best friend is Warsaw, an old high school buddy who rolls asphalt for the state despite a degree from Yale. Warsaw is obsessed with George Greg, a self-help guru who urges followers to scare themselves, and many of Sunland’s most memorable scenes center around Warsaw’s bizarre behavior.

Sid is interested in Mona, an attractive social worker, but various complications threaten their future. Sid makes every effort to successfully juggle his grandmother’s care, an illegal pharmaceutical business, a wacky bestie and a new relationship, but Waters consistently hurls plot complications at Sid’s strike zone. Happily, nothing in Sunland feels artificial or contrived. Just when I thought I’d figured things out, Waters delivered another curveball.

Sunland is a charming story, told with great humor and skill. There’s an old show-business adage: “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” Don Waters seems to have both figured out. ★★★★✩

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