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. While our politicians stay hydrated on lobbyists’ libations, the Arctic melts, North Africa fries and California burns.
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 both global and intimate. Now add to their work Claire Vaye Watkins’s 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?
Once civilization decamps to the relatively moist East Coast? 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.
But the novel’s eerie asides are equally engaging and surprising. At one point, Watkins offers a primer on “Neo-Fauna of the Amargosa Dune Sea.” It’s a bestiary that describes the fantastical animals that have evolved to exploit this new American land, including the hermaphroditic jelly scorpion, the stiltwalker tortoise and the ouroboros rattler, which “inserts its own tail into its mouth and locomotes via axial revolution.” The weirdness of these creatures is exceeded only by the TV game shows that will entertain our descendants, such as “the triumphant medical-inspirational dating show “Leper Love Boat” or “Torture Trio,” a travel show about the CIA’s exotic rendition sites. And there are other scraps plucked from the future and tucked in here, too.
For a few pages, the plural voice of some future town describes a skateboard park amid the Landscape of Thorns over the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. A community deep in a talc mine might be a prison or some future industry. Notes from a psychological report offer clues about what Luz and Ray are really up against in the community that embraces them.
“Gold Fame Citrus” eventually swells to a harrowing conclusion that turns and snaps as deadly as one of those ouroboros rattlers. No, not everyone will survive this ordeal. 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 is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
On Nov. 21 at 3:30 p.m., Claire Vaye Watkins will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C.
By Claire Vaye Watkins
Riverhead. 342 pp. $27.95