Nature refused to offer herself to them. The water, the green, the mammalian, the tropical, the semitropical, the leafy, the verdant, the motherloving citrus, all of it was denied them 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.
Gold Fame Citrus opens in the Hollywood Hills with a former model, Luz, cavorting in an empty house—a house that despite her moderate success as a model is far beyond her means. Instead its owner has left it unoccupied and now Luz and her boyfriend Ray have moved in and while he skateboards in the empty pool she goes through the massive closets and wears a different jeweled gown every day. It would be oh-so-glamorous if Luz could swim in the pool or lounge for hours in the enormous tub, but in this world there is no water and there hasn’t been for most of Luz’s life. Instead, the starlet who owned the home has probably gotten out and is now living in the Northwest or East where there is water. Unfortunately, those opportunities are gone and they have nowhere to go but empty mansions, drinking their rationed soda and trying to survive. When a night out in Los Angeles brings a wandering toddler into their lives Luz and Ray make the decision to get out of California and try to get into someplace normal. That the only way out is through the desert does not seem like an insurmountable problem until they run out of gas midway through their trip and Ray disappears after setting out alone to get help.
Gold Fame Citrus takes the post-apocalyptic genre into new realms of creativity. The child Luz and Ray decide to take is unusual, given to infrequent bursts of words mixed with gibberish, but when she and Luz are taken in by a community of desert dwellers after Ray’s disappearance she is given the qualities of prophecy fulfillment. The group is led by a dowser, who manages to keep them in water—despite being in the Amargosa, a region of Nevada populated with sand dunes that rise up past the hills and shift nightly with the wind. Everyone has a past and a new purpose and for a time Luz is lulled into their lifestyle. In this way, author Claire Vaye Watkins spins a world composed of scenarios and characters that mimic reality but skew a bit eerie. Only Luz and Ray read as firmly within the sphere of real.
As someone who has spent half her life living in states reliant upon the bounty of the Colorado River novels like Gold Fame Citrus easily invoke a kind of nervous reaction because what happens when it is gone is not so far fetched. The West has been partying on water it does not have for decades and at some point when the party ends it’s going to get ugly fast. Watkins captures that ugliness, not with the over-the-top performance of The Water Knife, another recent drought-induced dystopia novel I enjoyed, but with the same stealth that allows the dunes to shift shapes and uncover previously hidden truths. Her prose generates the kind of insidious feeling of acceptance in the reader that afflicts the water-starved characters. It is surprising then that the ending feels incongruent to the rest of Gold Fame Citrus. In another author’s hands this might be enough to bring down the entire novel but instead I was left appreciative of Watkins’ skill at creating such a richly drawn world, yet questioning why what I had seen and understood was suddenly not there. Which may have been her intent all along.