Rumbling slow like a deadly tidal wave, a dry expanse of earth expands each day, conquering the once-fertile land it encounters. This is what an almost-apocalypse looks like through the eyes of Claire Vaye Watkins: no bombs or asteroids, but crawling desertification rendering America’s West uninhabitable. The growing wasteland is personified as a sort of militia, referred to by Watkins and her characters as the Amargosa Dune Sea.
That uninhabitable West is the setting of Gold Fame Citrus, Watkins’ anticipated first novel, named after the myriad reasons greedy citizens were once drawn to California. Joke’s on them, she seems to say.
Her story begins in a starlet's house, the starlet long ago replaced by a couple of vagrants. Luz Dunn is a former model, the fallen poster child for a mission to preserve California’s thirsty soil. She tries on the starlet’s clothes helplessly, sauntering around the mansion, wishing she had a pet to keep her company. Instead she has Ray, who’s tough in spite of nightmares about his military days.
They try to stay busy, and on a mission to gather food they stumble on a task that’ll surely help them bide their time: a young girl, pre-verbal due to her age or a learning disability, or both. Enamored with her blunt, earthy nature, Luz and Ray take the kid (who they temporarily call “Ig”) from her inattentive people -- a gang of young wanderers, surely too aloof to be her parents.
Worried they’ll get caught, and hoping for a better, tree-filled life for Ig, they set off, thanks to an old housemate willing to offer a gas-filled car. A few miscalculations land them on empty near the encroaching, deadly dune sea. Dehydrated and delirious, Ray looks for help. There, their path forks into two.
When Luz recovers, she finds herself and Ig in a stationary bus, being tended to by a supple, topless woman, who, implausibly, brings them fruit. Luz savors the citrusy slices -- she’s been missing out on luxuries like fruit for so long. She soon learns that Levi, the unofficial leader of a small band of nomads, is responsible for providing it, along with his crew: Cody, a wiz at cultivating vegetation, Jimmer, a wise, guru-type, and the Girls, a gaggle of beautiful young women devoted to the tiny society’s lifestyle. Grieving from the loss of Ray, Luz quickly adopts their mantra: that the dune sea curates, allowing certain people to live along with it, wiping out the rest.
Watkins is at her best here, characterizing the easy slide from isolation to the open arms of an accepting, if ultimately wayward, community. She makes Luz’s disorientation, her susceptibility to believing false information, relatable. Levi and his crew inflate her ego, only to knock it back down themselves. Soon, she’s convinced of a conspiracy theory that the deadly nature of the dune sea is a myth constructed so nuclear scientists in the East can deploy weapons, rather than shelling out costly sums to store them.
Watkins is well-acquainted with spirituality, cultlike and not, through research (she cites Harold Bloom’s The American Religion and Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven in her acknowledgements), and also through familial experience. Her father, characterized by family friends as a benevolent acid-head from the Haight and a charming and talented musician, was Charles Manson’s righthand man.
Though he died when Watkins was 6, the experience seems to inform Gold Fame Citrus, as well as Watkins’s short story collection Battleborn, at least via her characters’ lost quests for meaning. Her first novel is worth reading, if only to get lost along with them, picking up distinctly American nuggets of wisdom and faux-wisdom along the way.
The bottom line:
Gold Fame Citrus is a different kind of dystopia; one that illuminates the spiritual coping mechanisms of those living in an apocalyptic wasteland.
Who wrote it?
Claire Vaye Watkins is a National Book Foundation "5 Under 35" winner, and the author of the award-winning short story collection, Battleborn. Gold Fame Citrus is her first novel. She's an assistant professor at the University of Michigan.
Who will read it?
Those interested in dystopian stories, and earthy, sonorous writing à la Richard Ford.
"Punting the prairie dog into the library was a mistake. Luz Dunn knew that now, but it had been a long time since she'd seen a little live thing, and the beast had startled her."
"Day, night, another day. Day. Day. Day. Why was there so much more day? Why were the nights not cool anymore? Luz asked, What season is it, Ig? Ig answered or didn't."
By Claire Vaye Watkins
Publishes September 29
The Bottom Line is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.
Also on HuffPost: