Gold Fame Citrus, the title of Claire Vaye Watkins’ debut novel, serves as a contrast early on in the book when it becomes clear that the California Watkins writes about is different both from the fields of citrus farms promised to the Oklahoma migrants from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, and from the same Hollywood promised to the legions of casting hopefuls searching for fame and fortune. Instead, the book opens to the stark reality of a California wasteland – ten million dry swimming pools – and in a starlet’s abandoned mansion in the now Laureless Canyon we discover that the novel’s protagonist, Luz, has just punted a prairie dog into the library. She’s panicking.
In her 2012 collection of short stories, Battleborn, Watkins skillfully wove the landscape of an arid Nevada as an omnipresent character throughout the collection. In Gold Fame Citrus, it’s initially clear that a generations-long drought has rendered the California landscape a salty and parched wasteland. Already loaded with connotations of underhanded characters – narcissistic Hollywood heroes, gamblers, Great Depression migrants, infamous cult leaders, and serial killers – Watkins’ book is of a California many decades past this familiar scene, where inhabitants have either fled for greener parts of the United Sates or dug in against the eviction to form cult-like societies in worship of the Amargosa Dune Sea that every day threatens to crush them.
Into this setting Watkins places Luz (light in Spanish), who spent her childhood as the face of a national PR campaign for the effects of generational drought on those born at the beginning of the change. Now, long after media influence could possibly help, Luz and her boyfriend Ray must move on from the relative safety of the starlet’s mansion when they abscond with a toddler they name Estrella. Luz happens upon a migrant utopia evoking other well-known groups, and it’s here that the reader can most sense Watkins’ own history – her father a former member of the Manson family – as she carefully crafts an all-too familiar cult. This cult follows the dune sea, described as both the devil and a god, that creeps over the landscape crushing cities and leaving mutated creatures behind. In many cases, Watkins has created her own post-tragedy dictionary where new words rest on the familiarity of their origins. Gold Fame Citrus is littered with well-planned symbolism and intentionally heavy-handed allusions, and it’s clear that Watkins’ craft is deliberate.
Watkins struggles with plot in this novel, and there is little, if any, feeling of hope in the work. Maintaining an interest in the characters is difficult at times, especially when Watkins writes an entire chapter where every sentence begins with the same phrase. What could have read as an important quest or personal revelation falls flat in exchange for beautifully crafted descriptions of landscape and detailed explanations of the minute workings of post-drought communities. This work will find a place alongside other notable apocalyptic fictions such as Edan Lepucki’s California, and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, and Watkins brings a unique and fascinating landscape that reflects just enough of the contemporary news clips to evoke a sense of haunting and urgent panic.
–– Karyn Haag