Beach Daze (They’re baaaack!)

Fun in the sun at Surfside Beach, SC by Robert S. Donovan via flickrIn case you’re emerging from a coma over the last couple of months and somehow missed the change, it’s the tourist season again. The signs are everywhere – but, alas, mostly here at the beach.

Gone are the days, for a while at least, when I could walk on the beach with my dog ’Dro (short for Pedro) and meet up with no one but myself.

Good place for doing that.

The late, great Southern humorist Lewis Grizzard wrote memorably that on a back road in Georgia at night, you could ask yourself a question and get an honest answer.

In South Carolina, a beach walk on a winter’s day is your best bet. Ranks right up there with truth serum.

But my next solitary beach walk of any season will have to wait. The beaches are thronged with tourists from all over, and ’Dro is not particular about where he cocks a leg. Good citizen that I am, I carry a plastic bag for his other business, but even No. 2 is best conducted without an audience, especially of strangers. So, for the time being, Dro and I are constrained to walk near the beach, not on it.

But that’s not to say that our alternative routes are without their compensations. For instance, all those license plates in parking lots along the strand: Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, New Mexico, Georgia, West Virginia, Ohio, New Jersey, Maryland, Texas, Alabama, Connecticut, Michigan, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Illinois, District of Columbia, Indiana, Colorado, New York, Florida, Utah, Japan — just kidding on that last one, but I did see Ontario.)

By my count, that’s nearly half of the 50 states in the union! And I probably missed a few. (Dro is nodding his head yes as I write this, but I have apologized again and again for forgetting to bring his treats on our walk.)

Besides the various states, there’s all that other stuff we put on our vehicles, identifiers of all kinds. The owners of these cars obviously love their alma mater (Auburn, William & Mary, Washington and Lee, Wake Forest, Southeastern University, NYU, etc.), their school teams (Tar Heels, Bulldogs, Buckeyes, Crimson Tide, Wildcats, Vols, Longhorns, Cavaliers, Gators, Tigers, Spartans, to name a few), their country (the U.S. of A., of course), their children (“Young genius on board”), their grandchildren (“Ask me about my grandkids”), their occupation (nurse, engineer, Marine, you-name-it), their causes…

Wait a minute; Dro is petitioning for my attention. Yes, Dro, of course, they love their pets! And, no, I won’t ever again forget the treats. Promise.

I realize that Dro and I are seeing only one slice of Americana, the segment of the population that can: 1) afford a beach vacation, and 2) chose the beach instead of, say, skiing in Vermont. So the artifacts here are decidedly middle class and upward (or downward, if you insist), but nonetheless interesting, at least to a man walking a sulking dog.

The ubiquitous peace sign, a throwback to the ’70s, is still with us. More au courant are concerns for the environment: “Lights out; sea turtles dig the dark;” devotees of biking: “Share the road;” the occasional contrarian: “I’d rather be fishing;” and the dog-lovers, bless their hearts: “I am an animal shelter volunteer” and “All my children have paws.”

Dro liked that last one, apparently unaware that it might include cats.

Of interest, too, is the self-promotion on the license plates of many of the states. New York calls itself The Empire State. New Mexico proclaims itself The Land of Enchantment. North Carolina boasts that it was First in Flight. Florida is still the Sunshine State. And mountainous Utah encourages us to Live Elevated, the awkwardness of which suggests that it was a reluctant compromise after wiser heads nixed the obvious first choice: Live High.

And let’s not overlook the so-called “message” plates: the self-accused UNKOUTH, the fun-loving JOYRYDN, the proprietary MYCAR, and my favorite, TXT L8R.

My least favorite, perhaps was a bumper sticker saying, “Your village called; their idiot is missing.”

Sonofagun! I didn’t think they even knew I was gone.

“Did you, Dro?”

Wipe that smile off your face, dawg.


  • Image: Fun in the sun at Surfside Beach, SC by Robert S. Donovan via flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

A Majority of One

You be tMajcovresizedhe jury. You be the judge.

All hell breaks loose in a small Georgia town when religion clashes with the Constitution over book censorship in the school classroom.

Not all religious fanatics come from the Middle East. America has its own, home-grown variety.

 Loved this book…riveting and surprising. A strong insight into what our society could become if we continue to label one another. Robert Lamb’s best novel yet. A must read!” ~Lydia Taylor, Amazon review

“This is one of the best books I have ever read.” ~Gail Leverett Stelling


Who wrote that?


I’m convinced that songwriters are the Rodney Dangerfields of popular music. Name any popular hit song of the last 50 years and ask your friends who wrote it. The most likely response will be, “Duh?” Like Dangerfield, the late king of one-liners (“I went to the fights and a hockey game broke out”), songwriters get no respect.

Why? Beats me. People just seem to pay no attention to who wrote something, no matter what it is.

Scout’s honor: as he cut my hair, my barber, a news junkie, used to tell me all about this or that story he had just read in the local newspaper. Often it was one I had written. My byline was on it. In bold type. He never made the connection – even when I said, “Yeah, I wrote that.” He’d go right on telling me the story, my story! I never called him on it. After all, he was wielding scissors and I was unarmed. But he’s no longer my barber, and poetic justice has allowed me to forget his name.

But what is it with bylines anyhow? Even I, a former newspaperman, overlook them at times. The other night, I was reading a story in National Geographic that was so good that, halfway in, I went back to the first page to see who had written it. No wonder I liked it; the author was Garrison Keillor.

But I have strayed from the subject of songwriters, which has been nibbling at my subconscious lately every time I find myself admiring some particularly good lyrics.Here, for instance, in a 1937 recording of “I Must Have That Man,”* by the one and only Billie Holiday, is a couplet, one of a string, that even Shakespeare might have envied:

Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields

”I need that person much worse ‘n just bad;
I’m half alive and it’s drivin’ me mad.
He’s only human: if he’s to be had,
I must have that man

Who wrote the song?

Jimmy McHugh, a songwriter who was a legend in his own time (July 10, 1894 – May 23, 1969). He’s been dead for nearly half a century, but if you have ever lamented the lack of eloquence to say to your Significant Other “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” or “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me,” you can thank Mrs. McHugh’s son Jimmy for putting your tongue-tied feelings into immortal words and even setting them to music.

For three decades, from the 1920s to the 1950s, McHugh, working with a variety of fellow tunesmiths – not least the equally talented Dorothy Fields – turned out hit after hit. One of them, as infectiously hummable today as it was back then, even helped Americans shed the Great Depression blues, urging them to grab a coat and hat, leave their worries on the doorstep, and start life anew “On The Sunny Side of the Street.”

No, my musical tastes aren’t mired in the past. But they aren’t exactly au courant either. Somehow I can’t persuade myself that what dominates the Top 40 airwaves these days is music. It strikes me as theatre, socio-political theatre – hostility and crudity chanted monotonously to the beat of jungle drums, hinting at violence just a hip-hop away. Hey, where are the likes of Leiber and Stoller when we really need them?

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller


Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, a songwriting team from the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll whose songs, like those of McHugh, have been playing somewhere in the world for half a century and bid fair to keep going for another 50 years.

Never heard of Leiber and Stoller? Think “Jailhouse Rock.”

“Everybody in the whole cell block was dancing to the jailhouse rock.”

Think “Love Potion #9.”

“She bent down and turned around and gave me a wink.
She said I’m gonna mix it up right here in the sink.
It smelled like turpentine and looked like India ink.
I held my nose, I closed my eyes, I took a drink.”

Think “D.W. Washburn.”

“If you don’t get out of that gutter before the next big rain, D.W. Washburn, you’re gonna wash right down the drain.”

Truth is, the team of Leiber and Stoller was a virtual hit-making machine throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Even today, you can hardly surf the radio dial for a minute without landing on one of their songs, be it “Stand By Me” or “Poison Ivy” or “I’m A Woman” or “Searchin’” or “Charlie Brown,” or “Hound Dog” or “Kansas City” or “Little Egypt” or “Fools Fall In Love” or “Youngblood” or “There Goes My Baby” or “Yakety Yak,” or the sublime ”Spanish Harlem,” a tune that fused rock ‘n’ roll with intricate poetry, violin and cello strings, and came out sounding perfectly lovely:

”There is a rose in Spanish Harlem, a red rose up in Spanish Harlem. It is a special one, it’s never seen the sun, it only comes out when the moon is on the run and all the stars are gleaming. It’s growing in the street, right up through the concrete, but soft and sweet and dreaming.”

If you think I’m suggesting here that they just don’t write them like that anymore, guess again. Really good songwriters continue to pour out the hit tunes that make up the soundtrack of our lives. But the really great ones, the Cole Porters, the Johnny Mercers, the Irvin Berlins, the Gibbs brothers, the Harold Arlens — the ones who turned out whole songbooks of their own musical genius, are now fewer and fewer. How many songwriters now alive can hope to match the feat of Indiana’s Hoagy Carmichael, who wrote four of America’s most-often-recorded songs of all time (“Stardust,” “Heart and Soul,” “The Nearness of You,” and “Georgia On My Mind”)?

But, thank goodness, the music never stops. After Leiber and Stoller came the Beatles, with gems like “Yesterday,” “Lady Madonna,” and “Eleanor Rigby.” Then came Elton John (and Bernie Taupin) with “Bennie and the Jets” and “Honky Cat;” Carole King with “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” not to mention the other songs on her fabulous album titled “Tapestry;” Don Henley (of the Eagles) with “Desperado,” “Heartache Tonight,” and ”One of These Nights.”

Close behind them came Billy Joel, the Everyman of popular music, with hits like “An Innocent Man,” “Just the Way You Are,” “New York State of Mind,” and “Keeping the Faith” – a verse of which, come to think of it, gives me the perfect exit lines:

“You can get just so much from a good thing. You can linger too long in your dreams.
Say goodbye to the Oldies but goodies ’cause the good ole days weren’t always good
and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.”


P.S. In case you missed it, this article was written by Robert Lamb.

*Holiday recorded the song with a team of famous musicians: Benny Goodman on clarinet; Lester Young, tenor sax; Buck Clayton, trumpet; Teddy Wilson, piano, Give a listen:

  • Images: All of the images appeared for used in this story were originally promotional/fair use.
  • I wrote this essay last June and it appeared then on

Beach Walk

I walk my pit bull ‘Dro (short for Pedro), on or near the beach nearly every morning. We usually access the beach at an inn whose parking lot, full these days, is to me something of an amusement park, what with all the bumper/window stickers and out-of-state license plates to be seen there: New York, Tennessee, Dro-DroMaryland, Ontario, Virginia, Texas, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Florida, North Carolina.

One Maryland license plate was especially evocative; it said simply RIPTREV. Love to know the story behind that one.

But most of the stickers were ones you’ve seen many times before: Ask Me About My Grandkids; I’d Rather Be Fishing; Hang Up And Drive!

Some were pugnacious: If Yo’ Heart Ain’t in Dixie, Git Your Ass Out; Keep Honking, I’m Reloading; My Kid Can Beat Up Your Honor Student.

Others were downright mean: Who Cares About Your Stick Figure Family?

Some aim for wit: My Other Car Is A Rolls; Jesus Saves — At First Federal; Be Nice To America Or We’ll Bring Democracy To Your Country; Your Village Called – Their Idiot Is Missing; Ask Me About My Grandog. ‘Dro liked that last one.

Still other stickers aim for wit but get only halfway there: Going 60 In The Left Lane With My Left Blinker On: Deal With It!

But I saw one this morning, on a North Carolina car, that was wholly witless. It said: Non-Judgment Day Is Near.

Lord, I hope not! The whole idea of a people who do not exercise judgment is frightening.

I know, I know. The original idea, one of the cardinal tenets of Political Correctness, was to curb or eliminate the judgmental in us. But somewhere between conception and implementation, judgment itself got fixed in the cross-hairs of social disapproval. Happens a lot with Political Correctness.

Anyhow, “judgment,” says the dictionary, is the evaluation of evidence to make a decision. It’s the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions.

“Judgmental” means having or displaying an extremely critical point of view.

Very different, eh?

Same with the uproar from time to time over so-called hateful speech. We might be right to disapprove of it — I say “might be” because the language both pro and con can get pretty hateful, can’t it?

But squelch it?


Punish it?

A thousand times no.

Hateful or not, freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment, and free speech is much more important to a free society than are bruised sensibilities. The French philosopher Voltaire nailed the problem nicely: “I might not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Now if only I can get all that on a bumper sticker.

I asked ‘Dro if he thought it were possible, but he gave me a decidedly judgmental look and pointed, I swear it, to a bumper sticker that said: Wag More, Bark Less.

Never let it be said that I can’t take a hint from a pit bull, judgmental or otherwise.

We hurried on through the parking lot and soon were on the beach.

Dear S.C. Education Lottery:

I bought one of your $5 scratch-off cards the other day. It exclaimed in big, bold type: “Win Up To $100,000!” Alas, scratched clean, the card showed no such possible prize. The most I could have won was $1,000. I find this puzzling and unfair. It is in fact false advertising.

Printed on the back of the card (enclosed) is this: “TOP PRIZE ODDS: 1 in 480,000.” But I submit that my odds on this card were “None in 480,000.” In short, I paid for a chance to win the top prize when actually I was given no chance whatever to win the top prize.

No? Then ask yourself: Would people buy Powerball lottery tickets in the hope of winning, say, $10 million if in fact there was no $10 million to win? Or if their ticket was null and void from the start? I think not.

So let me tell you your odds of getting $5 from me again: None in 48 quadrillion to the tenth power.

Have a good day. ~Bob Lamb

The Queen Wants What!!!

Let me see if I’ve got this right: The Queen wants Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, to lower her hem lines. They’re too short, sayeth the English monarch.

Royal Limbs

I like the Queen. Got nothing against her. But take a look at this photo (right) of Kate, snapped as the wind in Calgary, Canada, lifted the hem of her dress. Is that not as pretty a pair of legs as you’ve seen in a month of Sundays? Never mind that the wind almost flashed a royal tush — I guarantee you that this photo won more friends for the Crown than a million-dollar PR campaign could have.

Some of the stories, which were all over the Internet yesterday, even said that Queen Elizabeth had “ordered” Kate to wear longer dresses and skirts.

If true, all I can say is: Lighten up, Liz. There is such a thing as being a royal pain, you know.

Hey, you don’t hear her husband,  your grandson William, complaining, do you?

Bet not.

Your Highness “ordered” her to lower her hems?

No wonder you Brits lost the Colonies.


‘Your call is very important to us. . .’

I woke up this morning with a great idea (drum roll, please): we as a nation should abandon Imagevoice mail! It is the most vexing invention that ever came down the pike and has probably caused more ulcers than surprise phone calls from the IRS.

Why voice mail was not smothered in its crib ranks right up there with the mystery of why we ever let Texas into the Union. True, America has never met a bad idea that millions of its citizens didn’t embrace at once. Take the national mania for tattoos— but let’s leave that for another day; voice mail is easily the more harmful social affliction.

Is there anybody here whose milk of human kindness hasn’t curdled and re-curdled at hearing for the umpteenth time in half an hour’s wait, “All our agents are still busy. Your call is very important  to us. Please wait for the next available agent”?

Who among us has not turned the air blue with curses and shouted into the receiver, “If my call is so #^&*()+%  important to you, why don’t you hire more agents to answer your phones?”

Hire more agents? Provide REAL customer service? What a great idea! But why do we the frustrated customers have to do all the thinking for corporate America? Which of our beloved captains of industry, in the first place, thought it would be a good idea to install a communications system that put all of telephoning America on hold? And isn’t that, right there, the proximate cause of high rates in both unemployment and valium addiction?

Certainly it is. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I ask you:

-Did or did not voicemail put thousands of real live people out of work?

-Did or did not Corporate America hire enough agents to answer the phones when at some time in the next century Customer America finally gets to speak to a real live person?

-Was it or was it not cruel and barbarous treatment to devise a recorded list of options none of which was the reason you called in the first place?

-Was it or was it not with malice aforethought  that the voice-mail people selected the worst music ever recorded to play for you while you waited (and waited, and waited)?

I rest my case — and I call for a conviction that can be appealed only through voice mail.

Anatomy of a novel

I wrote my latest novel, A Majority of One, to explore the influence of religion in our society, a Imageconstitutional democracy. To do this, I set up a clash between church and state, a clash of the kind that shows up in news headlines again and again, year after year, propelled nearly always  by misguided albeit sincere religious fervor. Oddly, we easily recognize religious zealotry in other parts of the world, like the Middle East, but are blind to its influence in our own culture. The idea for this story came to me years ago when I was the editor/publisher of a weekly newspaper and lived for five years in a small Southern town. At a party one night, the hostess, thirtyish wife of a popular local businessman, cornered me in her kitchen to tell me of her religious fervor. After exclaiming at length how much she loved Jesus, she segued into her fear of Satan, which struck me as much stronger than her love of Christ. The devil was after her soImageul night and day, she said, and she lived in perpetual fear that he would somehow capture it and take it off to Hell. I believed then and I believe now that the woman, who appeared completely normal, was actually under a self-induced spell smacking of lunacy. I also knew, while cornered in that kitchen years ago, that one day I would write a novel about that kind of religious zeal. A Majority of One is that novel.


The Declaration of Independence, Updated

by | Dec 3, 2013

doi signingWhen in the life of a democratic nation it becomes clear that the government has parted ways with the governed and evinces no intention to reform, a decent respect for the opinions of mankind requires that the governed, i.e. the People, should declare in terms both broad and narrow the causes that impel them toward a separation of their own.

We the People hold to be self-evident the same truths that were proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence of 1776, chief among them an inalienable right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, and we remind the nation’s leaders that enlightened governments are instituted among humankind to secure these rights. We have grown weary of waiting for that to which we are entitled.

We also remind Washington and the world that governmental powers owe their legitimacy to the consent of the governed, and we reaffirm the original document’s declaration that it is the right and duty of the People to alter or abolish any form of government that becomes destructive of these ends, and to form a new government. The recent history of the present government is one of repeated malfeasance of office and of practices aimed at establishing a plutocracy of the privileged; fostering an economy whose chief industry is arms and armaments; and refusing to cooperate for the common good.

To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world:

The Executive branch since World War II has steadily assumed a disproportionate advantage in our system of checks and balances, rendering Congress ineffective in helping to guide the nation in its affairs. Achieved mainly through the President’s role as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, this imbalance has resulted in continual military operations abroad that consume a great part of the nation’s wealth at the expense of needs here at home; makes enemies for us around the world; and propels us along the course of Empire instead of world citizen.

The Legislative branch has steadily separated itself from the People by voting itself special privileges that distance it from the needs and desires of the populace it purports to represent; by selling its loyalty to the highest bidders; by refusing utterly to govern for the common good; and by turning a blind eye to the glaring need to reform itself.

The Judicial branch has evolved to a deliberative body reflecting the beliefs and interests of a privileged minority rather than those of a democratic cross-section of the People. Such a narrow range of sensibilities inclines the court toward decisions that favor their own kind and are in fact no more objective than were those of King George in the months leading up to the Revolutionary War. This societal imbalance and bias have tended to undermine the People’s faith in the court’s probity and in its fitness to guide the Ship of State.

Thus we the People call for an immediate return to responsible and responsive government of the kind that is achievable only through solemn and selfless deliberation, in all three branches of the government, by leaders resolved daily to put the People and the welfare of the nation first in every consideration. Thus we urge the following reforms and enjoin the Powers-that-Be to lead, follow, or get out of the way:

Abandon the role of global policeman, disengage the economy from the Military/Industrial Complex, and redirect the expenditures to domestic needs.

Repair the nation’s infrastructure, providing much-needed jobs while making long overdue repairs to roads and bridges, waterways and sanitation systems, power plants and electric grids, airports and harbors, without all of which the nation’s trade and transport would vanish.

Overhaul public education. Appoint a national commission to find out why we have fallen behind other Western nations in educating our children.

Make the minimum wage a living wage aligned with the cost-of living index.

Secure the nation’s borders and enforce the immigration laws. Do it without erecting the American equivalent of the Berlin Wall on any of our borders. Offer America’s executive and financial know-how to help Mexico build an economy strong enough to support its people at home.

Encourage and foster entrepreneurship from all corners of the nation, not just Academia. History has proven that nature distributes intelligence and ingenuity impartially.

Fix the mental-health problem. Alter laws that obstruct mandatory treatment. Stop the use of prisons as dumping grounds for the mentally ill.

Pass legislation defining corporations as business entities, not as people. With the backing of the Supreme Court, the government has endorsed a secret and non-transparent system of campaign finance assuring that the rich can continue to exert a pernicious influence on the Congress, the Office of President, and the Supreme Court.

Recompose the army. The current composition has in effect privatized the military, which encourages armed adventuring, often for illusory and ill-advised reasons, and without the advice and consent of Congress. Today’s army is drawn principally from the poor, who serve as cannon fodder mainly because they are politically impotent. A private army answerable to one person only is, as we saw in Nazi Germany, an invitation to tyranny.

Forbid states to use their law enforcement and corrections systems as sources of revenue. Require that they support these systems with tax money, not the fee system, which mainly targets those least able to afford fees and renders void the Constitutional guarantee of equality under the law.

Decriminalize marijuana and free those in prison for relatively minor offenses. In a civilized society, crime and punishment are not the components of an industry that feeds on human misery.

Expand Medicare into a national health plan. Health care for profit is a social evil.

Extend to 10 years the time during which former members of Congress are forbidden to engage in lobbying.

Abandon the Electoral College in favor of a popular vote to elect a President. The current method has led to a Balkanization of the country and in effect disenfranchised the minority vote in every state.

Reform the laws governing the nation’s banks and other financial markets. Include consumer safeguards against unfair business practices, usurious interest rates, and arbitrary fees.

End the use of secret courts, extralegal proceedings, tortured rationalizations, false alarms about national security, and Heaven only knows what else, to justify the nation’s departure from international law and from its own high ideals of moral conduct.

This list of needed reforms is by no means complete. The governmental ills that bred it have festered for decades, owing to the self-serving of many while the rest of us slept or simply acquiesced. Let us recall the admonition of political philosopher Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

Therefore, appealing to the conscience of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, we demand a fair and impartial government of the People, by the People, and for the People, and we enjoin all who hold office, whether high or low, elected or appointed, to treat public office as a public trust, not as a means of self-enrichment, self-aggrandizement, or empowerment beyond the bounds of honorable public service.

We declare here and now that the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God, conjoined with the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the independent spirit that gave birth to this nation, entitle us to good government, and we want it now. In plain point of fact, it is not possible to pursue happiness, let alone find it, in a crime-ridden, bitterly divided society lacking in national cohesion and purpose. Our states are united in name only and our citizenry not at all, for we have abandoned the melting-pot ideal that made us a great nation and replaced it with a thoughtless allegiance to all that divides us.

With a firm reliance on the protection of Providence, we the undersigned pledge on our sacred honor to unite to restore the America for which our forefathers risked their lives and fortunes. Let us resolve to show that we are their rightful legatees. Selah.

Signers of the Updated Declaration of Independence
18 Ian Whatley SC
17 Audie Bovier GA
16 steve stevens Georgia
15 Tom Ferguson Georgia
14 Dave Cooley North Carolina
13 Sheila Morris South Carolina
12 Goddamned Nazis Massachusetts
11 Richard Eisel Georgia
9 zac carruth Texas
8 Gail Kiracofe VA
7 Gene Howard NC
6 William Beauford SC
5 Selwyn Gossett Florida
4 Glenn Overman Florida
3 Ian McLaren SC
2 Lee Leslie Georgia
1 Robert Lamb South Carolina

The Declaration of Independence, Updated

Read the petition. Share it with your friends:

My latest book review


by Don Waters

Released: October 14, 2013
Publisher: University of Nevada Press (208 pages)

Sunland is a flawed but auspicious debut.”

Given the chance, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce might have paid Don Waters not to publish this novel. The author tells us vividly and often that it’s hot enough in and around Tucson to drive people loco. As if to prove it, he has assembled a cast of characters in Sunland who, if not already loco, seem shy of the mark by only one or two degrees Fahrenheit.

Among them are retirees at Paseo del Sol, a retirement home where the heat gets a lot of help from dementia; a Mexican drug lord who would gladly chuck it all to be a musician; a Yale graduate who, in spite of an Ivy League education, is three bricks short of a load; and an assortment of other zanies who drift in and out of the story, taking memorable bows.

Then there is the protagonist, Sid Dulaney, who if not loco himself might as well be—and who could blame him? He was abandoned at a young age by his father, who hanged himself; and by his mother, who flew off to Alaska and never came back.

Now grown, Dulaney, recently cuckolded by two consecutive serious girlfriends, has fled job and home in Massachusetts, and wound up back in Tucson at age 33, living alone in his grandmother’s house, the house he grew up in, and she is now, at age 88, in residence at Paseo del Sol.

Worse, Dulaney has begun a dangerous entrepreneurial mission: running prescription drugs out of Mexico, where they can be had cheaply, to help his grandmother and other retirees at Paseo del Sol (and himself) make ends meet.

As Mr. Waters’s first novel, Sunland is a flawed but auspicious debut. It borders on episodic, it quits rather than ends, and its protagonist never quite comes into focus as a real being, though in fairness that might have been intentional.

Dulaney would not be the first person who could not find direction or traction through a maze of abandonment and betrayal, nor would he be the only man adrift in the margins of modern American society.

Mr. Waters is good with dialogue and description, and his word picture of a night sky in the desert sounds good enough to hang in a museum. He also brings freshness to the metaphor, as when his protagonist, watching from high ground, sees in the distance an approaching van “palpitating on the rutted road.”

And parents would do well to ponder Dulaney’s description of his suicidal dad, “who had never really understood the emotional mechanics that make for a good father. He didn’t believe in translating emotion into sentences . . . It was my childhood job to divine affection out of grunts and mumbles.”

That’s not to say that Mr. Waters doesn’t sometimes swing and miss. “Crown” is not an intransitive verb (“his streaked eyes opening when the first burning rays crowned to the east . . .”), and the author could profit from revisiting English critic John Ruskin on the Pathetic Fallacy. “A vegetable mélange watched over [emphasis mine] a bowl of purple fruit punch and sandwiches, cracker and cheeses.” Don’t think so.

Still, despite an occasional miscue, Sunland is a good read.

Reviewer Robert Lamb is a former adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina, where he taught writing and American literature for 20 years. His first novel, Striking Out, a coming-of-age story, was nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award. His second novel, Atlanta Blues, was cited in one newspaper’s year-end roundup as “one of the three best novels of the year by a Southern Writer—and maybe the best.” The novel was also nominated for the Southern Book Critics Circle Award and contended for an Edgar Award. Mr. Lamb has also penned the novel, A Majority of One, as well as a collection of short stories and poems, Six of One, Half Dozen of Another (Stories & Poems + 1). His latest novel, Journey’s End, is due out soon.

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