AUGUST 27, 2014
IN THE ELEVATOR PITCH version of Don Waters’s new novel, Sunland, a 30-something named Sid Dulaney has somehow found himself running an illegal Mexican prescription drug ring, supplying the residents of his grandmother’s assisted-living home. The novel is comic, often knowingly absurd, but when I started to tell a friend of mine, a cardiologist, about the book, he shook his head seriously, “That’s an incredibly important topic. I have an elderly patient, a woman with diabetes, high blood pressure, and coronary artery disease. She turns off her water halfway through the month to pay for her medications.” My friend emailed me a series of links to articles about the “silver tsunami” of the aging American workforce, and the Medicare gap or “doughnut hole” in prescription drug coverage between $2,850 and $4,550 annually. Many patients titrate their medications and skip days and even weeks to make it to the end of the year.
But Sid Dulaney isn’t motivated by righteous indignation at the state of the American health care system. He’s become “a mule for the elderly” because he’s broke, and his life has unraveled; he’s left his trial-lawyer, live-in girlfriend because she gave him an STD. He’s quit his job as a high school English teacher in New England and moved home to Tucson to live in his grandmother’s empty house and lick his wounds.
At the beginning of the novel, Dulaney has been driving the hour south to Mexico for months and has settled into a routine. He has a business relationship with a farmacia in Nogales and a hidden compartment behind his glove box to hide pills from the agents at the border. He knows his “clients” well — two dozen or so elderly residents to whom he supplies everything from painkillers to liquid glaucoma meds. He has spreadsheets detailing doses, manufacturers, precautions, refill dates, and complex drug interactions. He even delivers the goods in white paper bags. He’s an amateur, but he’s meticulous. He cares. And more than this, he’s good at his job. The residents love him and his attention, and he becomes enmeshed in their lives. For Dulaney, the nursing home is not such a bad place to hide.
Waters’s description of this world — the arid, desert landscape, the Mexican barrio, the retirement home and its manicured grounds, sanitized hallways, and one-bedroom apartments, its activity centers and wheelchair-friendly walking paths, its sundowners keening into the dusk — is precise and convincing. The residents, themselves, are as finely drawn: Ms. Wetherbee, a lonely melodramatist, addicted to painkillers and online shopping; Mr. Garland Bills, a mysterious hermit whose secret life as a closeted gay man has been opened and re-closed; Seymour Epstein, a retired math professor, with a fetish for workout porn and a love for baseball that he and Dulaney share. Epstein is the best of a rich cast of characters. He is often hilarious, irreverent, and as the story progresses, he becomes increasingly central to the novel’s driving questions about the importance of family and community, and the despair of growing old alone.
But for Dulaney, a man who is, yes, floundering, but still in the prime of his life, why this? Why so unable to apply for a new job or ask out the pretty social worker at the nursing home? In the novel, there’s no simple causal chain linking the difficulties of Dulaney’s childhood with his current predicament, and yet we know that his father committed suicide at 33, when Dulaney was only eight, by hanging himself from a tree outside his son’s bedroom window. Not long after, his mother abandoned him to his grandparents. She resettled in Alaska, started a new family, doesn’t visit, and rarely makes the effort to call.
Waters has written poignantly, in nonfiction, about the reality of absentee fathers. His own played virtually no role in his life. In Sunland, he describes the emotional unavailability of Dulaney’s father:
He didn’t believe in translating emotion into sentences. I don’t ever quite remember him saying I love you, I’m proud, good job. It was my childhood to divine affection out of grunts and mumbles. There must have been decent moments between us, but I was young, and memory was tricky. It was like going to the basement and briefly toggling on the light and then trying to remember the placement of everything in that room years later.
So Nana is all Dulaney has left. Sort of. He does have a strange, vestigial friend from high school, Warsaw, who is a challenge to any would-be summarizer: a trust-fund, Yale-educated, former All-State pitcher, who is now a self-help-cult-following, 30-something with father issues of his own and has shaved his entire body — head, arms, legs, pubic hair, even his eyebrows — but who is also loyal and provides frequent comic relief. Warsaw joins Dulaney’s pharmaceutical business and even starts volunteering at the nursing home. If one of the functions of the novel is to create conflict that becomes, in the words of John Barth, “increasingly perturbed,” then having a character like Warsaw around is one good vehicle to take matters from bad to worse.
What does Dulaney want? Beyond caring for his grandmother, not much. He wants to buy her a gravesite. He wants, maybe, to get a real job teaching again, at some point, someday. He wants to get high with his own private stash of Xanax at the first sign of trouble. He wants, sort of, to have a relationship again, to trust again, to maybe try his hand at being a father and having a family. But just how to go about doing this, he has no idea.
It’s a testament to Waters’s storytelling skills that at the same time I started to lose patience with this kind, well-meaning, but hapless protagonist, his Nana posed my question to him for me. Nana keeps her husband’s ashes in the closet of her small apartment in the retirement home, and when Dulaney asks her why, she says:
“Bubba was shy,” she said.
“But you keep him in a closet. Inside a drawer, in a box.”
“He liked his privacy.”
“He’s in a drawer. Doesn’t that strike you as weird?”
“He’s nearby,” she said. “That’s what matters. If I had him in the other room, I wouldn’t be able to move. I’d die of grief, looking at him in that box.” She pulled a cord and the closet light went off. “Do you want to know what I think?” she asked me.
“Do I have a choice?”
“You’re using me as an excuse to not get on with your life.”
My left side, near my ribs, stung.
“You need to move on,” she said. “I love you, but you need to stop pussy-footing. No job. No woman. You’re stucker than a duck in mud.”
She tells him to stop hanging around “us diminished folk,” that he’s wasting his best years. Nana is both right and wrong. Because while it’s true that Dulaney is stuck and hiding, it’s also true that his care of and for these people is authentic, noble, noteworthy.
The book’s absurdist edge is advanced by two characters: a mysterious figure in a white Stetson who appears to be stalking Dulaney, and a wannabe jefe named El Bebe who runs a minor-league Mexican cartel. Dulaney becomes involved with both of these characters when his grandmother suffers a stroke and requires 24-hour care but the little income he makes from the prescription business isn’t enough to pay her bills. His misadventures with them along the border become the ostensible story of the novel’s second half, but the book does not fall victim to a light-footed subplot. Instead it keeps returning to its deeper story, which has to do with the plight and indignities of growing old. With every page, I found myself caring more and more for its elderly characters and their predicaments, grateful for Dulaney’s comfort to them.
When Epstein began to nod off, I lifted him from the couch and guided him down the hall. The old man gripped my elbow. I took my time untying his arch-support shoes, rolling down his thick, sweaty tube socks. He grabbed my arm and eased into bed. Above his headboard was a buoy with his wife’s name painted on it.
Waters posits his novel’s deepest questions about the lives of the elderly and the abandoned — abandoned by spouses they’ve outlived, by their grown children and relatives, by an all-too-fast-moving culture. What do you do when all that seems left is waiting? What do you do when you look around and the only people caring for you are nurses and doctors and social workers and activity directors, however well intentioned and kind? And, conversely, what do you do when the only family you have left is blind in one eye and can’t walk? How do you take care of a loved one without losing some essential part of yourself in the process?
My grandmother had gone from sipping whiskey in the afternoon while tinkering with knitting needles to looking sad, terrified, thin and incomplete in a wheelchair. Now she had trouble finding words. Now the look on her face annihilated me.
Chekhov, in one of his letters to his younger friend and fellow writer Aleksei Suvorin, said that the task of the artist is not to provide solutions, but to ask the right questions. (“Not a single problem is resolved in Anna Karenina, or Eugene Onegin, but they satisfy you completely because all the problems in them are formulated correctly.”) Sunland formulates its questions correctly. Even as the novel gets wackier and more picaresque as Dulaney gets more deeply involved with El Bebe and his goons south of the border, the larger questions of how we live and die and comfort each other in between are the true focus of this funny, moving novel.