Feeling parched yet? Just wait. Earlier this year, NASA reported that more than half the world’s largest aquifers are running down. But don’t let that cramp your golf game in Phoenix. As the Republicans’ “I’m Not a Scientist” campaign against climate change has demonstrated, anything that threatens the lives of hundreds of millions of people is easy to ignore.
Fortunately, there’s no denying that the climate of literary fiction has changed to reflect the new environmental reality. Some of the finest writers — T.C. Boyle, Barbara Kingsolver, Lydia Millet and others — have dramatized our era’s challenge in stories that are global and intimate. Now add to their work Claire Vaye Watkins’ searing debut novel about the barren world that awaits us.
Gold Fame Citrus opens in Los Angeles at a moment not too far off when the Southwest is bone dry. In this “ruined heaven, this laurelless canyon,” Luz Dunn is living in a starlet’s abandoned mansion with her partner, Ray. Government has evaporated, and society has been distilled to bartering gangs. Luz and Ray drink rationed cola and fantasize about berries. “The water, the green, the mammalian, the tropical, the semitropical, the leafy, the verdant, the motherloving citrus, all of it was denied them,” Watkins writes, “and had been denied them so long that with each day, each project, it became more and more impossible to conceive of a time when it had not been denied them.”
Like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Gold Fame Citrus doesn’t spend much time exploring how we arrived at this moonscape. (Let’s face it: We know how.) Instead, the novel focuses on these two survivors and how their relationship weathers the heat. Ray is a traumatized soldier gone AWOL. Luz is a model who spent her adolescence being exploited as the poster kid for water conservation. And Watkins is a master of tantalizing details, the unspoken tensions and disappointments of these lovers scraping around in the arid opulence of scorpion-infested bathrooms and empty swimming pools.
The novel’s spark is a “strange, coin-eyed, translucent-skinned child” whom Luz and Ray spot living with a gang near the market. Convinced that these druggies are too abusive or negligent to be good parents, Luz and Ray kidnap the toddler and light out into the desert. With no capacity to care for a child except their good intentions, it’s the beginning of a noble but naive scheme in a world determined to flash-fry all forms of life. You can feel the grit in your teeth as this thirsty little family drives across an ocean of sand without a map or a prayer.
The drama of their trek is soon eclipsed by what they find in the desert, a place that does not cultivate anything “save thirst and thirst and insanity.” With her lush, impressionistic prose, Watkins describes mountains that undulate across the Southwest. Implacable dunes swallow whole cities and roll on, leaving them crushed and desiccated. These are scenes as beautiful and unsettling as a cemetery, from the “blanched, calcium-crusted oven of the valley” to an abandoned opera house built by an egomaniac who painted her audience on the walls “so she’d always sell out.”
But the real genius of Gold Fame Citrus is its speculation about the isolated colonies that might survive in this aboveground hell. How might laggards, wanderers, fanatics and thieves coalesce?
Watkins conjures the mythologies and mores that might sprout in such infertile soil, and she creates a messiah to lead a band of misfits as they struggle to stay ahead of the shifting sands in “the deadest place on the planet.” Whether such a figure can save Luz and her makeshift family becomes the suspenseful question at the center of the plot.
Gold Fame Citrus eventually swells to a harrowing conclusion that turns and snaps as deadly as one of those ouroboros rattlers. The blistering sunlight exposes as much as it destroys, and Luz and Ray harbor secrets even as they struggle to remake themselves. It’s easy to get turned around in the endless expanse of blinding sand, but Watkins is a bewitching guide through this burnt land that may lie just ahead.
Ron Charles reviewed this book for The Washington Post.