The West may be running low on water, but there’s no shortage of smart literary authors considering the end of the world. In recent years, a host of writers have released books imagining what the planet will look like in the aftermath of widespread disease or governmental collapse. Dystopian novels are the product of real global fears, and now water scarcity has moved to the fore.
In Claire Vaye Watkins’ beautiful debut novel, “Gold Fame Citrus,” the California-born author depicts an American West brought to its knees by a crippling drought. The book couldn’t be more timely — with water rationing and wildfires dominating the headlines recently, some readers might find the subject matter a little too close to home.
But it would be a shame to skip Watkins’ unsettling, hallucinatory vision of the future. “Gold Fame Citrus” follows a young couple in what remains of Los Angeles. Luz Dunn, a former model, shares an abandoned movie star’s house with her boyfriend, Ray Hollis, a military deserter and veteran of America’s “forever war.” The two have ignored the government’s orders to evacuate and the widely distributed “LEAVE OR DIE” pamphlets.
They’re not alone in the city. They encounter black-market salesmen, survivalists, people who have refused to move out of stubbornness or a vague sense of desert-focused spirituality. There’s almost no water in the city, and even small portions of fruit are sold at outrageous costs.
When Luz and Ray encounter a toddler who doesn’t seem to belong to anyone — or at least anyone who cares for her — they bring her to the house where they’ve been squatting and decide to raise her as their own. But they soon realize that Ig, as they name her, deserves a shot at a bright future, and they make the decision to move East. But the nation’s infrastructure has crumbled, with highways sinking into the ground and sand dunes making travel all but impossible.
Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t take long for things to start going badly.
Watkins’ vision is profoundly terrifying. It’s a novel that’s effective precisely because it’s so realistic — while Watkins’ image of the future is undeniably dire, there’s nothing about it that sounds implausible. She explains in detail how the drought transpired, leaving most everything west of the 100th meridian a wasteland, and how the government was impotent to stop the “drought of drought, wind of winds.” She also writes with a keen understanding of human nature, both good and bad. She has a genuine compassion for the Angelenos who have chosen to remain in their dying, desiccated city as well as for the ones who have evacuated — “Mojavs,” they’re called, Okies in reverse, loathed and discriminated against in the eastern cities where they’ve been forced to settle.
The prose in “Gold Fame Citrus” is stunningly beautiful, even when — especially when — Watkins is describing the badlands that Southern California has become: “Nature had refused to offer herself to them. The water, the green, the mammalian, the tropical, the semitropical, the leafy, the verdant, the motherloving citrus, all of it was denied them 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.” One might think there are only a few ways to portray a landscape that has become, essentially, nothing, but Watkins writes with a brutal kind of beauty, and even in the book’s darkest moments, it’s impossible to turn away.
And there are plenty of dark moments. One section, where Luz and Ig wait in the desert for Ray, beset by dehydration and heatstroke, is almost painful to read. The same goes for a violent sex scene later in the book; it’s a sickening portrayal of a woman’s loss of control, and Watkins refuses to let the reader turn away.
There is beauty in this novel, though, and it’s found in the relationship between Luz and Ray and the child that’s become something like a daughter to them. They don’t always understand one another — Indiana-raised Ray doesn’t initially understand Luz’s desire to leave the state she was born in: “Hoosiers aren’t quitters. California people are quitters. No offense. It’s just you’ve got restlessness in your blood. … Your people came here looking for something better. Gold, fame, citrus. Mirage. They were feckless, yeah? Schemers. That’s why no one wants them now. Mojavs.”
They come close to death several times just trying to be together. There’s no sentimentality here, no greeting-card moments or earnest proclamations of an undying love. Their devotion is evident in their actions, their realization that they have a chance to make one another’s lives better. A small chance but a chance nonetheless.
It’s an urgent, frequently merciless book, as unrelenting as it is brilliant. Watkins forces us to confront things we’d probably rather ignore, but because we’re human, we can’t. As she puts it: “There were never so many hazards in the world as there were today. Love made you see them all.”
Gold Fame Citrus
Claire Vaye Watkins
Riverhead: 352 pp., $27.95
Schaub is a writer who lives in Austin, Texas.