Gold Fame Citrus, by Claire Vaye Watkins - book review: A fascinating portrait of dystopia in the desert

A powerful portrait of an apocalypse

Sam Kitchener
Tuesday 01 March 2016 18:04
Comments

America has always been a country of pioneers, a place where pilgrims or hucksters looked to start again. And, since the Gold Rush, California has been the place where they went to start it big. Lured by “gold, fame, citrus”, as a character in Claire Vaye Watkins' debut novel puts it, a phrase on which her book is a fascinating, dystopian fugue.

This is a California blasted by drought, the sun that nurtured the citrus turned sinister thanks in part to Californians' pursuit of luxury at the climate's expense. The Mojave Desert has become the Amargosa Dune Sea, swept by extreme winds over the south-west US, towards Los Angeles. Most south-westerners, or “Mojavs”, have left their homes, though there are rumours of a colony in the desert: “the ground zero of the eco-revolution”, or a survivalist outpost, “a garrison for the familiar cast of trigger-happy vigilantes scowling and squirting tobacco juice across the New Old West”, depending on whom you listen to.

Abused former model Luz and her boyfriend Ray are squatting in an unnamed starlet's deserted Hollywood villa. Ray attends to practicalities, siphoning gasoline from abandoned cars and procuring blueberries; Luz raids the starlet's library for books about American pioneers – Lewis and Clark, Mulholland. Foraging in town, they rescue a two year old girl called '“Ig” from a gang of Mojavs, and retracing the steps of those early pioneers, head east across the desert, hoping to build a new life together.

Luz and Ig are separated from Ray, but rescued by the fabled colony, which turns out to be a peripatetic commune, drawn to worship “at the foot of the dune”. Luz soon falls under the spell of its leader, Levi, a shady dowser and erstwhile Mormon. Ruling through a combination of charisma, sex, and, of course, his ability to find water, Levi reminds us how often the pilgrims of the American West have fallen victim to the hucksters.

Watkins' forbidding treatment of the West in her short-story collection, Battleborn, has been compared to Cormac McCarthy's, and like McCarthy, her desert landscapes are dense as well as barren, not just in the physical detail with which they're rendered, but the significance with which characters imbue them.

There is a Pynchonesque density, too, to Watkins' American dystopia. And yet it coheres, however messily, into a powerful portrait of an apocalypse less the result of external catastrophe, than familiar human failings.

Quercus £16.99. Order for £14.99 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in