I’ll get right to the point: Tim Sandlin’s novel “Sex and Sunsets” has to be one of the best I’ve read in… well… some amount of time. The first line hooked me: “The need has come for me to explain myself to someone.” And the book doesn’t let up for a moment.
The narrator and protaganist is a man named Kelly, a 30-something drunk, dishwasher and failed writer of Western novels. He’s also a divorcee who hears voices speaking to him through moving water. The sink, the creek, the rain, they all talk to him. Kelly tells the reader early on: “I’m not crazy. Remember that.” Of course, as soon as he brings it up, the reader can’t help but look for clues about Kelly’s sanity, or lack thereof. And Kelly engages in a lot of what could be called crazy behavior.
For example, while watching a bride at her wedding kicking a football, Kelly decides that he will marry her. No worry that she has just married someone else that same day. No worry that he doesn’t know her name. Another example: Kelly hang-gliding into the side of a lodge in a desperate attempt to impress that same woman.
Kelly isn’t totally ignorant of his lady problems. “My Romantic Interests are generally confused when I meet them, unhappy while we’re together, then ridiculously at peace about six months later.” But he cannot envision a world where he and Collette (the newlywed woman he’s obsessed with) aren’t together forever. He’s completely harmless in his obsession (well, maybe not completely), but Collette understandably gets a restraining order.
Kelly doesn’t know how to quit. “This series of obsessions, if you want to call them that, has made me into what I consider a unique individual,” he confesses. And that’s what makes him such a lovable narrator.
Kelly is poor and a bit lacking in cleanliness, while Collette is beautiful and recently married to an incredibly wealthy man. Despite these odds, Kelly manages to pry his way into Collette’s heart. Soon, they’re actually spending time together. This, of course, encourages Kelly’s delusions of grandeur: “My calling in life was to save this beautiful woman from her calamitous marriage. I would hound her into loving me for her own good – not mine.”
“Sex and Sunsets” is the story of Kelly’s neverending quest to get Collette to love him. The novel is also an ode to the power of fiction. Kelly is a man with desire, and what he desires is constricted by reality. So, instead of giving up his desires, Kelly rages against reality. If he pushes hard enough, if he commits himself fully to his goals, can he break down the barriers of reality? Kelly sums up this predicament when he talks about why he writes: “I never told Mom that I write books. I was afraid she might want to read one. She might decide I’m a bad writer and try making me face reality. She’s always after me to face reality, but I don’t see how it’s possible to do that and write a novel at the same time.”
The cover of this book contains a quote from People magazine that says this novel, “falls somewhere between On the Road and Bright Lights, Big City.” Maybe Sandlin’s paying some homage to Kerouac here, but the comparison seems like a bit of a stretch. One thing’s for sure, in my mind at least: Sandlin is a far better writer than Jay McInerney. To me, this book is written more in the tradition of Charles Bukowski’s novels. There’s as much drinking and hilarity as Bukowski, less sex (despite the title of the novel), and where Bukowski is always chasing after women, plural, Sandlin’s character is always chasing after one woman, singular. And he won’t stop until he gets her.
This novel was first published in 1987 but it’s stood the test of time. It’s still fresh, punchy and provocative. Sandlin is a wordsmith, a romantic and a comedian, and Kelly is as real as narrators get. Whatever his inspirations may be, Sandlin demonstrates his own style and tells his own story. And it’s a hell of a good one.