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Book review

‘Gold Fame Citrus’ by Claire Vaye Watkins

Claire Van Watkins.Heike Steinweg/Heike Steiweg

“Gold Fame Citrus,’’ the wonderfully original yet uneven debut novel by award-winning writer Claire Vaye Watkins, presents a dreadful and fatal farce set in a drought-stricken, dystopian Los Angeles. The ambitious narrative complicates any romantic notions “the California dream” might typically evoke.

For years, we are told, Californians have been given the opportunity to change their wasteful ways but have failed to do so. Now that Los Angeles is dry, barren, and largely unlivable, all the water gone, the rest of the country believes that Californians are getting what they deserve. “Your people came here looking for something better,’’ observes one character, explaining why generations flocked to the Golden State. “Gold, fame, citrus. Mirage. They were feckless, yeah? Schemers. That’s why no one wants them now. Mojavs.” “Mojav” is analogous to a racial slur, with Californians denied work in parts of the world where life is made livable by water.

Luz and Ray are lovers in this grim world, and each carries a complicated history. A former assassin who served prison time, Ray “had the blazing prophet eyes of John Muir, and like John Muir, war had left him nerve-shaken and lean as a crow.” Luz is a former actress who was once known as “Baby Dunn,” the conservation-board poster child. She grew up with her childhood publicly tracked alongside California’s gradual destruction. The green space disappeared; the central valley turned to salt. According to one newspaper clipping in Luz’s baby book, “Berkeley Hydrologists” predicted that “Without Evacs Baby Dunn will die of thirst by 24.”

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Luz lives into her 20s, despite these dire predictions. When we meet her she is squatting in a starlet’s abandoned mansion, drinking ration cola. Her life with Ray is languid, sweaty, and purposeless until the couple meet and rescue Ig, a “strange, coin-eyed, translucent-skinned child,” and the three become an instant family. Knowledge that this new “blissed-out chaos” will be their undoing if they don’t move on, they are galvanized to seek a better future and like the pioneers of old, they hit the road in order to find it.

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Instead they trade one blighted landscape for another, encountering no adventure, only tragic mishaps. The novel becomes increasingly dark and hopeless, a mix of Mad Max-style action and a bleakness reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.’’ After their car breaks down, Ray disappears into the sand dunes, and Luz and Ig fall into the hands of Levi, a charismatic leader who forces a hallucinogenic root on his followers and claims to be a water diviner. Readers will not be surprised that Luz becomes Levi’s lover, that Ig is not as innocent as she seems, and that Levi turns out to be a despicable human being.

Watkins is not a sentimental writer (like Mary Gaitskill and Aimee Bender, writers with whom she is often compared, her characters are not immediately likable), but she is sometimes a self-indulgent one. Some chapters read like polished writing exercises slotted into the book. Some descriptions feel gratuitously brutal: “[S]he’d heard of vile things happening in the Valley. Traffickers charged quadruple for children, and many hosts refused to take them, so toddlers were left to cook in cars, older kids locked in the apartments parents fled.”

Avoiding sentimentality is great, but the prose often enforces an ironic distance that is distracting. If readers can’t invest in whether or not characters succeed or fail, live or die, then the novel risks becoming a political statement or a collection of ideas.

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There’s no doubt that Watkins is wildly talented. Her prose often shimmers: “Ray drifted through the colony. . . . He passed RVs with foil over all their windows, tents, the black hand of ash where a fire had been. He passed a man in a tepee, napping, his features obscured by sun and sand and fuchsia mottling like some new map across one side of his face.” Other times the language choices feel overwrought, the sentences overwritten. Can sobriety really be “beige,” for example? Is it imaginative or simply inaccurate to describe cereal as “confettied”?

While Watkins has an undeniably original voice that’s as hard-edged as the desert Los Angeles that anchors this first novel, her characters have experiences but don’t change much; they make fun of everything but believe in nothing. This, perhaps, is the larger point: that in a world absent kindness or meaning, survival means regarding everyone and everything with a fierce wariness. But the artistic choices in how to depict this can be offputting.

GOLD FAME CITRUS

By Claire Vaye Watkins. Riverhead, 342 pp., $27.95


Emily Rapp Black is the author, most recently, of “The Still Point of the Turning World.”