Even those who read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath with belligerent disinterest remember that novel’s miraculously bizarre ending, in which Rose of Sharon offers her breast to an old man starving in a barn. It’s a moment so gravid with the many conditions of an exhausted America that’s malnourished and emptied, but also hopeful. Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus is a work of equal desperation and ambivalence, set in a near future where a generation-long drought has ravaged the Southwest, a place that, mostly evacuated, becomes a kind of hallucinatory wasteland. Like Steinbeck’s classic, thirst is everywhere in this debut novel: spiritual thirst, sexual thirst, a thirst for understanding and for survival. But unlike his novel, thirst isn’t driving Watkins’s characters to the West, but out of it, the California dream transposed into the California nightmare.
We begin in L.A., now a place of 10 million empty swimming pools. Luz, a rail-thin Mojav with an appetite for the nature writings of explorers like John Muir, and Ray, an AWOL soldier and surfer, have been quartering themselves in a starlet’s abandoned château after the “drought of droughts” has driven most of the population East. Living off of rationed cola and whatever else they can forage, the pair convince themselves they need to escape to safer territory after letting a young, strange child, dubbed Ig, into their lives. The book’s title serves as a kind of grotesque, nostalgic punchline when it becomes quickly apparent that the old desires found in the West—prosperity, stardom, sustenance—are no longer even vaguely on the horizon.