To Reno, NV – with Love from the Wolf

By David Anthony Durham

When writing for Wild Cards one never knows where the storylines might take their characters. When my first character, Marcus Morgan (the Infamous Black Tongue) appeared in Fort Freak, he’d fled his family for New York City. I was born in NYC and have visited often, but I haven’t lived there as an adult. When writing IBT’s scenes I frequently went to Google Maps to walk him down streets, across bridges, through parks. I was able to overlay what I know of our contemporary NYC with all the imagined fantastical elements introduced by the Wild Card virus.

With the next two volumes of that cycle, Lowball and High Stakes, things got a bit more international. After escaping the joker gladiatorial fight club ring he’d been trapped in, IBT had to navigate through Kazakhstan. Urban areas. Rural areas. Mountains. Villages. And eventually the Baikonur Cosmodrome. There was a lot of Googling going on with those two.

I can’t know what I got right or wrong, but I tried hard to portray the people, landscape, and culture respectfully. Again, this was a Wild Cards version of the world, so there were plenty of changes in the world inherent in that. And the novel is about an onslaught of Lovecraftian monsters and horror that our heroes are fighting to save the world from. There was quite a bit of creative leeway to be had.

When I introduced a new character, Bacho, in Texas Hold ‘Em, the setting was San Antonio, Texas. I’d been there, walked the streets, had a feel for the place. But still, there was googling. For Bacho it’s the place where his ace power – a spectral werewolf with a mind of its own – emerged. Place was setting, but didn’t matter that much as I shaped that story. 

But what if a setting is truly closer to home? A new home at that? What if place mattered to the story in a more personal way? 

That’s what I had to deal with when Bacho returned in Pairing Up, in a love story with the wonderful, beautiful butterfly that is Adesina. I set it in Reno, Nevada, a city I’d lived in for a couple of years after accepting a teaching job in the MFA Creative Writing Program at UNR. It’s a quirky city that I liked quite a bit. It’s not straightforward, though. It’s a mix of discordant elements, and I became very aware that people not familiar with the city knew very little about it, while also having considerable preconceptions. If I was going to set my story there I needed to balance what I’d observed and experienced about Reno with the creative flourishes that the Wild Cards virus might have brought to it. What I didn’t know going in was that Reno wouldn’t just be the setting of the story; in many ways it would dictate what the story was actually about.

So how did Reno inform the story?

It’s right there on page one: “Who knew Reno got this cold? It’s the freaking desert, right? Everyone here points out that it’s high desert… I kinda mistook Reno for Vegas.” Yep, that’s a thing, thinking that Reno is somewhere near Vegas, as hot and as dominated by casinos. It’s not. It’s a day’s drive north. At 4,498 feet, with the foothills of the Sierra Nevada at the western edge of the city. High desert means hot summers, sure, but also snowy winters, with ski destinations only a short drive away. I didn’t need to add much to this aspect of Reno. It just is what it is, even with the Wild Card virus.

Still on page one I hit another seminal component of my time in Reno: “I can smell the Bountiful Bean.” That’s a made-up coffeeshop, but it’s a fusion of the many coffeeshops that visited frequently. Writing there. Meeting with grad students or colleagues. Feeling hip on occasion. Out-cooled on others more often. The Main Wild Card addition was that one of the baristas is a guy named Merl, who likes to be called Steamo. That’s because of his special way of frothing the milk for cappuccinos. He doesn’t need a machine. He just… well, it might be better not to know.

Skip ahead to page fourteen and we have the entry of Sizzle Pie, a pizza place that I didn’t even need to invent the name of. It’s odd, really, that various – and very good I’m told – pizza joints were so frequently part of my Reno life. I was eating low-carb the whole time I was there. So I watched people consume a variety of interesting looking pizzas all the time.

On page fifteen a significant – and unfortunate – plot point is introduced. In the story they’re called the Ten Pillars. The life inspiration was the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017, famously connected to UNR by a student captured in mid-chant, tiki torch carrying furor in a photo that became one of the most iconic from the event. Later, a group with similar white nationalist affiliations spoke on campus, causing much protest and consternation in the community. A fictional version of that event becomes one of the major dramas of my story – with a Wild Cards twist, of course.

I had to set parts of the story on UNR’s campus, since that was where my work took me. One of the main events in the story – a joker pride rally that starts out as warm and supportive as it should be – aided by a joker, Purple Haze, with a special gift for sharing his stoner high with the others – but turns ugly when racists twist the event into chaos. That can happen readily enough in our world; the Wild Cards version has its own spin on that, making the racist, homophobic, and misogynistic anger into a contagion that gets out of control.

When Bacho joins a theatrical performance called The Extravaganza, he takes us on a jaunt through the casino district where it’s going to be staged. I tried to imagine a stranger version of walking through this area of the city, but ended up pretty much keeping things the same. And then we enter the casinos themselves. Casinos may be fundamentally about taking money from people in mind-numbing ways, but they garb that in lots of stuff that they offer: concert spaces, cinemas, bowling alleys, swimming pools, shopping centers. What could I do to make this scene weirder? Not much, really. I rethought the smoky haze and smell of casinos as an “ayurvedic cleaning formulation” instead, but that was wishful thinking. 

Both Bacho and Adesina are cast in roles perfect for them and their joker/ace characteristics, and things go swimmingly for a while. Everything comes to a climax when their subversively progressive theatrical performance meets the ace-infused retrograde hate that’s simmered in the background. The two forces collide and… well, wouldn’t want to give away just what happens. I will tease that Bubbles and Rustbelt play parts in the action.

The very end of the story rests on one of my favorite things about my time in Reno – exploring the hills and mountains that began right out my back door. Hikes in the hills with my wife, Gudrun, and our lion-hunting ridgebacks, Saba and Vaila were an almost daily fixture. While we didn’t come across any lions, the dogs did chase plenty of rabbits, coyotes, and deer. If necessary, you can always carry repellents such as a deer stopper spray.

The dogs were strangely incapable of seeing rattlesnakes, though, which I guess was for the best.

Bacho, having made an agreement with his spectral wolf, finally makes good. The two of them head into the mountains on a wolf-run that might last many days, both of them finding themselves in a landscape I described like this: “The mountains step back toward the horizon, great shapes climbing over each other, each layer its own Earth hue, each a promise to be explored. It’s beautiful.” 

That’s how I felt about the place. I was there for five years, and will always cherish the time there and people I spent it with. And I’m thankful to the city for how it informed my Wild Cards story. Though I didn’t know when I began it, “The Wolf and Butterfly” isn’t a story that I conceived of and chose to set in Reno. No, really it’s a story for which the setting chose me, and the story grew out of things I lived during my time there. Thanks, Reno.