In her hotly anticipated debut novel, onetime Nevada author Claire Vaye Watkins imagines the consequences of extreme drought on the West and its people
Raised in California and Nevada, Claire Vaye Watkins is a writer of the American West. Her award-winning book of short stories, Battleborn, features haunting, complex portraits of the desert in all its allure and danger. Now, in her debut novel Gold Fame Citrus (Riverhead Books, $27.95), Watkins again settles her gaze on the arid West, taking the desert’s unforgiving potential to a near-futuristic extreme: Drought has turned Los Angeles, and most of the Southwest, into a wasteland. Civilization proper has evacuated East. Much of the landscape has been swallowed up by an expanding sea of sand; we learn that “a white-hot superdune entombed Las Vegas.”
Some stragglers remain in Los Angeles, picking the skeleton of the city clean and subsisting as best they can. The book revolves around three such individuals: Luz, a former teen model, has holed up in a Hollywood starlet’s abandoned mansion, languishing and raiding the actress’ plentiful wardrobe. She’s found love post-drought with Ray, an AWOL soldier. Together, they do their best to play house and find food and water in the city’s chaotic remnants. They rove alleyways where wilted produce is peddled like heroin. They attend massive bonfire events called raindances (picture busloads of criminals getting dropped off at Burning Man). It seems they’re set to stay in the city, despite its dangers, until Luz encounters an abused toddler named Ig and is moved to take her home to the mansion. Suddenly a family of three, Luz and Ray realize Ig can’t have a safe life unless they get out of L.A.: They have to attempt a hazardous pilgrimage east.
The book is as innovative in form as it is in content — some chapters depart from the linear narrative of the protagonists to provide historical context; others weave in alternate points of view or introduce supporting documents (such as a National Laboratory employee reference questionnaire). These innovations further illuminate the times our characters find themselves in, and often the characters themselves. Luz and Ray’s individual histories haunt them, yet in many ways the characters’ pasts seem to have been wiped out alongside the landscape — one of the text’s thematic explorations involves wondering how one comes to truly know another or one’s self, especially after everything that once was is gone. Of Ray, Luz starts “to think she’d never known this man and never would.” To mull him over, she uses an exercise one of her former acting coaches prescribed, a way to “learn about a character.” Hoping for answers, she makes three lists: “What he says,” “What he does,” and “What other characters think about him.”
Their compelling relationship and the high emotional tension of trying to protect Ig prevent the narrative from ever falling into the trap of indifference that sometimes plagues dystopia-centered writing. Throughout the book, Watkins’ portrayal of the postapocalyptic drought environment is vivid, feeling hauntingly probable. But the text’s most terrifying depictions come in its honest premonitions of humanity under duress. The dazzling prose and empathy in Gold Fame Citrus is paired with a cold truth, a question: Who and what will prevail when conditions become too toxic — whether physically or emotionally — for a thing as fragile as kindness to survive?