In Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Crossing, a sixteen-year-old Billy Parham escorts a wolf across the U.S.–Mexico border to deliver the marauding animal back to its home range. The border separates boyhood from manhood; it separates the boy’s predictable, domestic life from the violent, outlandish world out there, beyond. The book’s main cast is concise: a boy, a wolf.
In Don Waters’s debut novel, Sunland, a 33-year-old Sid Dulaney escorts a baby giraffe across the same boundary, in the opposite direction. Again the border serves as a metaphor, and for many of the same ideas. Though he’s twice the age of Billy, Sid is still very much a boy, perhaps even more so, a self-described modern man-boy, “emerging from a prolonged adolescent cocoon—that distinctly American bubble that falsely promised I’d never have to stop, never have to settle, never have to make a decision of any consequence.”
Does it make sense to compare these two novels? The Crossing is set in the late 1930s, and Sunland the present. Depression, recession. Times are again tough for young and old alike. The desert still merciless and beautiful. And sure: as Sid smuggles cheap prescription drugs across the border for the residents of his beloved grandmother’s retirement community, Waters wants us to think hard about some hard things (the inhuman costs of health care, the way we treat our elderly, the perils of illegal immigration). But it’s clear that, more so, he wants us to laugh. Cormac McCarthy doesn’t tell many jokes.
Waters’s cast is wide and eccentric. There are the lively, if moribund, residents of a retirement community (“twenty acres of planned death”). There are Sid’s best buds: a Yale-educated trustafarian who gets off on Mexican gore tabloids, and a retired math professor who gets off on women’s fitness videos. There’s Sid’s former babysitter-turned-potential-love-interest-and-illegal-activity-partner, a Native American executive of sorts on the local rez. There’s a flirty nurse. These characters are truly the color on the palette here, other than the Sonoran desert itself. Waters renders it all with the subtle shades of someone who’s hung out with such people, and felt awe of such landscapes. This leaves us, like Sid, with an affection for “each frail, bald, arthritic, and incontinent one,” and marveling at “lightening veins…flickering like broken neon.”
The driving question—and one asked by more than one of the charming oddballs with whom Sid spends his evaporating days—is: will he get his shit together? He’s drifting. Self-medicating. Not paying attention. There’s something literally rotting in the walls of his house. He’s a drug mule, yes, but he remains too altruistic to make any real money at it. He’s just trying to get his beloved Nana and her neighbors some pills they can actually afford. But when Nana’s health deteriorates, he’s forced to consider riskier, bigger-payoff ventures. And coyotes make more dinero than mules.
The story of Sid has its roots in Waters’s debut short story collection, Desert Gothic, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Award. The short story “Mr. Epstein and the Dealer” introduces a slightly more pathetic version of Sid, but the storyline is the almost the same; it’s the early sketch that Waters has committed to canvas in Sunland. (And here I will mention, in the interest of full disclosure, that, though we have never met, Waters agreed to write a blurb for my own debut novel last year, as it was set in our common hometown of Reno, Nevada.)
The border truly is a gray area, and Sid’s impressions of its physical and psychological presence do well to convey this. “Delicate as a spit bubble,” he calls it. “I knew anything could puncture it. Sealing two thousand miles of sand and sagebrush and skunkweed may as well have been a delusion. [Border Patrol] tried to keep everything lid-tight with their symbolic walls, stadium lights, and agents parked on mesas, but I knew it was all just improvisational artifice.”
The thin line that Waters has to walk, then, when staging Mexican cartel violence across the page from masturbation humor, is what can sometimes throw the novel off-balance. The tone hues closer to comedy than drama, and this makes it difficult to believe Sid is ever in real danger, or truly in harm’s way—though we’re supposed to think he is. Our pulse is supposed to rise. But it can’t go both ways. Imagine Seth Rogen ill-advisedly cast in Traffic.
Overall though, the book strikes the right pitch. Waters has an eye for physical detail and a charitable heart. These combine to make the borderlands outside Tucson feel real, his multigenerational cast members worth rooting for, and his first novel an easy pill to swallow.