Sunland, Don Waters’s debut novel, takes us through an American Southwest that, though fictional, couldn’t feel more real. It begins with thirty-three-year-old Sidney Dulaney’s recent move from Massachusetts to Arizona to start over after a failed relationship and an abandoned career as a high school English teacher, in order to help Nana, the grandmother who raised him. When the book begins, Sidney is already in charge of Nana’s financial situation and has determined a need for change. As a result he has begun driving to Mexico to procure the prescription drugs on which she and everyone in her assisted living facility depends. While this seems a frugal and well-intentioned idea, there are rules to running drugs—even legal ones—between Arizona and Mexico, and soon Sydney’s trips catch the attention of Diego, who works for one of the cartels and whose boss demands a cut.
Before we are dragged into the wild world of the cartels, however, we get to know the residents of Paseo del Sol, the assisted living facility where Nana resides. Through the characters who depend on him we also get to know Sidney, his limitations (he tends to take an opiate himself here and there), but also his capacity for warmth and humanity—whether he is watching games with Epstein or taking Ms. Wetherbee to a meeting for drug addicts, even if it does mean a slight drop in profits. Sidney’s close relationship with his grandmother and his situation as an only grandchild put him in a position of authority and vulnerability; he can predict the eventual end of everyone at Paseo del Sol. It is Nana who tells Sydney to get [End Page 303] on with his life, that helping her is a convenient excuse not to have a real life. Nevertheless, it is not Nana’s advice but the combination of a tenuous relationship with a new girlfriend, an enduring friendship with a roommate, his concern for animal welfare, and a desire to do the right thing that ultimately makes Sydney grow up.
Sunland stands out as a book that takes clichés of the American Southwest—drug and human smugglers, fancy retirement homes, and the promise of escape—and brings them fully into literary fiction in a believable way. Sidney himself is particularly well realized, from his occasional moments of weakness to his next-door-neighbor ordinariness.