The Inescapable Presence of the Border, and the Desert: Don Waters’s ‘Sunland’

Sunland Sid Dullaney, the protagonist of Don Waters’s first novel, Sunland (University of Nevada Press; 200 pages), is thirty-three, newly single, and unemployed. He has moved from Massachusetts back to his hometown of Tucson to care for his widowed grandmother. Nana lives in Paseo del Sol, an old folks’ home Sid struggles to afford. To pay the exorbitant cost, he starts making runs across the border to buy her medication, and gradually, medications for almost all of Paseo del Sol’s residents. “I began introducing myself to Nana’s neighbors and friends, showing off my best smile. The business, born from necessity, grew.”

Paseo del Sol serves as a canvas and a counterpoint. The elderly cast of characters demonstrates Sid’s underlying virtue despite his wavering moral compass: his leniency with the grieving Ms. Wetherbee, his genuine affection for the youthful Epstein, and his unending devoting to his stern and lovely Nana all prove it’s about more than just money for Sid. And yet, serving the elderly leads Sid to the demanding and gradually more dangerous world of drug smuggling. The blue hairs are the antithesis of the strange man in the white Stetson. But it is his service to the senior citizens that finally brings Sid to the world of Mexican drug cartels.

The Southwest is more than a setting in Waters’s novel; it’s a character, a plot point and the impetus for much of the action. It allows Sunland to become a quintessentially American tale: we meet a disparate group of people all somehow linked by the pursuit of money and drugs: upper-middle class seniors, Mexican American social workers, Native American nannies, Mexican cartel members, and, of course, Sid, an underemployed former English teacher, The nearness and otherness of Mexico hangs over everything in Arizona in the story. It is just sixty-three miles south of Tucson, but pharmaceuticals are one-fifth the price there and everyone knows it. People cross illegally every night and everyone knows it. And, so many Arizonans, including all the social workers at Paseo del Sol, can trace their heritage back to down there. Still, for many Tuscon residents, Mexico couldn’t be farther away. But for the characters we meet, it couldn’t be closer.

Sid exists in that place between the U.S. and Mexico, spending much of his time in border towns, in communities that exist because of the man-made separation. “The border was not Mexico. Nor was it the States. The border was its own beast, a place alive with false promises and implied terrors.” For Sid that serves as a metaphor for his own life. His grandmother keeps getting older, his chances of starting a family get slimmer every day, and his best friend keeps getting crazier. He is stuck in a borderland; he must sift through false promises and implied terrors and find what can be real for him.

As with Waters’ first book, Desert Gothic, a collection of ten stories tied together by their Southwest setting, Sunland also exists within that paradoxical world of heat, death, and awe-inspiring beauty. The story remains a desert tale throughout—even when the man-made lakes and colored fountains of Paseo del Sol and the swimming pool at El Bebe’s Mexican compound try to overpower the hot, barren landscape. Wherever the story goes, it must return to that burnt stretch of land between the two countries by the end. Because like the desert, the border is king in Sunland; everything above and below it seems to only exist because of that arbitrary line right in the middle.

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