Climate science encourages the public to imagine global warming as a decades-long desiccation, a slow transformation of liquid water to vapor locked in the atmosphere, turning the planet into a wasteland of deserts, as if everything is dropped into a saucepan over high heat and cooked into Nevada. In speculative fiction and fantasy, the image often plays out in the planet-girdling sand dune, whether it’s Frank Herbert’s Dune or George Lucas’ Tatooine. Claire Vaye Watkins finds the metaphor useful in her debut novel Gold Fame Citrus, in which the Amargosa, a dune sea that covers much of the Southwest, is central to her dystopian world of prophets, prostitutes, survivors, and assorted characters at home in a Mad Max movie.
The Amargosa Desert is a real place, which Watkins knows, having grown up in the Mojave Desert and in Pahrump, Nev., a stone’s throw from Death Valley. Her intimacy with these landscapes puts her prose on a par with other great Western writers, such as Edward Abbey, John Steinbeck, and Ivan Doig. Almost no other writer captures the utter desolation of these places without a hint of romantic disrespect; Watkins loves and fears the desert in the same breath.
Watkins takes an extreme environment and exaggerates it further to create a post-abundance terrain where the dream of California is dead. Water, the thing that made California happen, is a memory taken away by mismanagement and a warming world. The ancestors of the novel’s characters came looking for the three things in the novel’s title—money, celebrity, and agricultural riches—but they use all of it up and leave the clean-up to their descendants. Luz Dunn is a cast-off model who links up with Ray Hollis, a former soldier emotionally damaged by his country’s endless wars, and they find an apparently abandoned child, whom Luz names Ig. Knowing it’s a kidnapping but rationalizing it as a rescue, the instant foster parents decide to give the toddler a future by heading east to a more civilized part of the country.
Making a rather odd decision to drive directly into an unfamiliar region (most native southern Californians I know have a healthy respect for the desert), they eventually run out of road and into a nomadic community of extremophiles led by a man who shares too many personality traits with Charles Manson to be a coincidence. (Watkins is the daughter of a pre-homicidal Manson follower.) The prophet, named Levi, becomes a node in an ordinary lovers triangle, setting up a sequel-preventing, ironic ending that left me disappointed, despite the exhilarating ride up to that point.
Despite the flaw, Gold Fame Citrus is a tattoo-engraved, scarified, nipple-pierced, X-read into a future where the Southwest, especially California, has paid the price for a century of excess. Watkins’ world serves as a stand-in for all of America, showing how human nature probably won’t change much even as lower-left corner of the USA reverts to its natural state, something akin to the inside of a jar of those little silica-gel cylinders that soak up H2O in bottles of aspirin. Watkins will leave you thirsty for more of her stories.