For anyone who has watched firestorms devour entire towns; who has watched farmland wither and die for want of water, who has wondered if our current lack of water is not just temporary, but indeed the Mother of All Droughts, Claire Vaye Watkins’ debut novel, Gold Fame Citrus is familiar territory.
In a hazy future, LA-born Luz lives in “Laurelless Canyon” with her boyfriend Ray. They are squatters in a once-famous starlet’s once-elegant house where Luz spends her days dressing up in discarded ball gowns. Ray makes lists, scavenges for gasoline, food, anything worth trading for something else.
“Your people came here looking for something better,” Ray tells Luz. “Gold, fame, citrus. Mirage. They were feckless, yeah? Schemers. That’s why no one wants them now. Mojavs.”
In Vaye Watkin’s future, California is a wasteland. The rivers are dry and the underground aquifers are dust. The sun blazes and when it does rain the air is so hot the water evaporates before it reaches the ground. The state is dry as death and anyone with any money at all has long since abandoned it.
Vaye Watkins’ prose is powerful, and her narrative true. The story is as real as it is terrifying, because in a place where water has become mythic, geography is all that’s left.
“They ate crackers and ration cola and told stories about the mountains, the valley, the canyon and the beach. The whole debris scene. Because they’d vowed to never talk about the gone water, they spoke instead of earth that moved like water.”
One night, Luz and Ray go down to the bonfires, a place where the climate refugees gather to drink, dance, forget. Down among the drifters and the druggies, the drinkers and the plain dangerous, Luz finds a strange toddler who whispers in her ear that her name is Ig, and she says “Don’t tell anyone. Don’t tell, okay?” The child appears to belong to a clutch of grifters, or to no one at all. Driven by instinct she doesn’t understand, Luz picks up the child and tells Ray they’re taking her home.
Luz and her family escape Los Angeles, heading east, seeking a place more hospitable, somewhere safer, somewhere with water. Their car breaks down in the midst of a borderless sand dune so vast it spreads and grows with all the desiccated bits of earth and stone and mountain that was once the Central Valley.
They join a band of misfits led by an enigmatic leader who is either a visionary or a madman, or both. The collective lives on the edges of the dune, surviving somehow as an outpost of civilization, moving their temporary desert city as the sand shifts and threatens to swallow them alive.
Gold Fame Citrus is a complex story of connection and belonging, of outcasts and survivors, of climate change to the extreme, and about the very small scrap of nature that humanity manages to cling to, in the most adverse conditions. Part science-fiction, part cautionary parable, it is a book worth reading if ecology means anything at all in the future of the West.
Cynthia Gregory is an award-winning author who lives and writes in the Bay Area with her rescue pup, Winston The Wonder Dog. Her new book, An Inspired Journal: the Art & Soul of Creative Nonfiction, on Green Tara Press, will be available in 2016.