Shady dealings in the desert

  • A resident of Sun City, a planned retirement community in Arizona.

    Kendrick Brinson
 

Sunland
Don Waters
200 pages, hardcover:
$25.95.
University of Nevada Press, 2013.

Sid Dulaney leaves his cheating girlfriend behind in Massachusetts and returns home to Tucson in Sunland, Oregon writer Don Waters' hilarious first novel. Sid had worked as an itinerant teacher, but finds himself jobless in Tucson, where he spends his time looking after his beloved grandmother, Nana. He starts crossing the border to buy 88-year-old Nana's medications more cheaply in Mexico. When Nana's fellow residents at the Paseo del Sol retirement community ask him to do the same for them, he becomes a prescription drug runner for grateful senior citizens.

"At first," Sid explains, "I had trouble accepting the little amounts people could pay me for delivering drugs. My problem was that I liked these old folks too much. I liked their unending kindness, their teary eyes, and their crazy fashion sensibilities. … Very few people had the time to sit down, prepare a pot of tea, and talk to you, and care about you, truly care, but these people did."

Despite the savings on prescriptions, Nana's finances dwindle, and so Sid turns to increasingly desperate measures to keep her at Paseo del Sol. He learns he's being followed by the henchman of a Mexican drug lord, who wants kickbacks, and begins to romance a beautiful social worker at Paseo del Sol, their relationship kicking off to a hysterical start at an adults-only "Animal Amore" tour of the zoo. These elements come to a comic boil as Sid, determined to make one last score, agrees to transport a migrant over the border.  His charge, however, turns out to belong to a different species than expected.

In taut, inventive prose, Waters, winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, captures the rhythms of life along the border. A newspaper reporter is described as "a typical borderlander, all tendon and grit"; the public art in a Mexican town reveals "a culture replete with mythos," while a votive candle shrine brings out "the usual suspects: Jesus, the Virgin of Guadalupe." And Sid takes time to appreciate the desert landscape: "It was an amazing, clear, moon-rippled night. It hurt my chest and head thinking on it, about us, our placement in the grand order. Everything was just stars and dust." Sunland is one part farce and one part soulful examination of love, friendship, mortality and Arizona living.

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