I can't help but feel that the recent spate of novels featuring middling protagonists pushed to commit criminal acts can be blamed on Breaking Bad.
Surviving extreme financial pressures has always been good plot fuel. But the recently-concluded AMC series, about a cancer-ravaged high school chemistry teacher cooking meth to leave something financially for his family, seems to have jump-started the imaginations of many fiction writers. At least judging from the many literary crime books arriving in my mailbox these days. (See also H. Lee Barnes' Cold Deck, which I reviewed June 13.)
Among the better, more satisfying efforts is Sunland. Don Waters lives in Portland, Ore. Because of his Nevada roots (Reno-born and raised), he writes about the Southwest. His fiction collection, Desert Gothic, won the Iowa Short Fiction Award; his stories are anthologized in, for example, New Stories of the Southwest. Set in Tucson, his new novel tells a nutty tale of 30-something Sid Dulaney. Sid cares for his ailing grandmother, Nana, who raised him after his father killed himself and his mother went to start a second family. Nana lives in the prohibitively expensive (for Sid) Paseo del Sol retirement village. He also serves as, in his own words, "a mule for the elderly," bringing them cut-rate pharmaceuticals across the border via a contact on the Tohono O'odham rez. Most of the drugs actually help Sid's clients; others only numb the pain of decaying bodies and broken hearts.
The scenario is ripe with humor, and Waters never lets an opportunity go to waste. When, early on, Sid halfheartedly tries to collect from deadbeat customer Ms. Weatherbee, he discovers she's sharper than she looks—and capable of blackmail.
"You take this watch," she said, and the vibration in her voice convinced me of something true. "You hand over that bottle and I won't call the front office and tattle. I could tell them about your business. I could push the emergency call button. I'm a storyteller. He touched me, officer. He touched me." Her cried-out eyes narrowed. "I've already been weeping. Who will they believe? Hand me that bottle."
The old girl had me, and my opinion of her took a sudden, interesting shift.
If it all sounds a bit Golden Girls-ish, that's because it is. There's even a man-crazed crone in the mold of Blanche Devereaux (minus a Southern accent) named Ms. Bunny Vallance. Her flirtatious interactions with Sid are genuinely funny, if a tad boilerplate. Interestingly, despite Waters' literary and journalistic pedigree (he has penned articles for Outside magazine among other top publications), it's easy to see Sunland as a pilot episode for a TV series starring a shlubby, balding, warm-hearted substitute teacher trying to save an entire retirement community from aches and pains, themselves and one another. There's no way Sid can succeed, of course.
Which brings us to Sid himself. Waters does a superb job of gradually revealing the real reason the character ended up in a situation comedy. Turns out he was a teacher in Massachusetts with a girlfriend he loved deeply until she cheated on him, giving him V.D. Humiliated, he returned to Tucson, focusing on Nana rather than on rekindling his own ash-and-embers life. He wants to return to teaching full time, but uses the excuse of Nana to avoid commitment—to a job, a girlfriend, etc. To my mild disappointment, Waters doesn't seriously explore border-living seniors—many saddled with the insufficient Medicare Part D plan—who circumvent the financial burden of medication costs by seeking drugs in Mexico. Sunland would rather not illuminate this issue.
Spoiler: Unlike the protagonist in Breaking Bad, who evolves from inept square into vicious gangster, Waters' character fails to develop. Sid is the same in the end as he was in the beginning. Like too many literary novels these days, for reasons that remain inexplicable to me, Sunland is satisfied to present a character in emotional stasis. At the outset, we know Sid isn't someone who can successfully transport an adolescent giraffe across the border. In the book's final pages, he proves us right.
Whatever literary demerits such inert characterization earns, I still laughed out loud when reaching the point where Sid, thinking he's about to border-ferry humans, encounters a zoo animal. Sunland may be too zany for its own good, but it's a pleasurable read and deserves an audience. Let me prescribe this to fans of lovable loser-centered, crime-caper TV shows like Burn Notice, Monk and Diagnosis: Murder. With any luck, a Hollywood producer will stumble across this one.