The folks we meet in Don Waters’ debut novel are often trying to be something they are not. Whether to please another person — a lover, a parent, a mentor real or imagined — or to convince themselves that things could be different, Waters’ characters go to great lengths to reinvent themselves and their situations. “Sunland” (University of Nevada Press, 200 pages, $25.95) is a darkly comic novel, and these efforts at reinvention are, appropriately, both funny and sad.
Take, for example, El Bebé, a reluctant second-generation criminal who is attempting to muscle Sid Dulaney, the novel’s narrator. El Bebé has been practicing his threatening skills with his keeper, Fausto, and is now trying them out on his target: “‘So,’ the kid said, turning to me. ‘Why don’t you pay me? No one does business in my plaza without my approval. Sonora belongs to me. All this’—he threw out his arms, as though hugging the state of Sonora—‘all of this belongs to me.’ He looked at Fausto. ‘Was that good enough?’”
As for Sid himself, he’s a man attempting to take care of his grandmother and recover from a broken heart. To handle the former, he earns money running illicit pharmaceuticals from Mexico to various residents at the Arizona senior community where his grandmother lives. He is desperate to avoid the realities of his life — his grandmother’s deteriorating health, the various ne’er-do-wells who want a piece of his action, even the atrocious stink in his home.
In “Sunland,” Waters shines a bright light on coping mechanisms — the idiosyncratic things we all do to help us stare down the inevitable challenges of life. Waters’ characters are quirky, to be sure, but they are also wholly recognizable and their stories are resonant.
Rob Cline is a writer and published author, marketing director for University of Iowa’s Hancher and director of literary events for New Bo Books, a division of Prairie Lights.