"Gold Fame Citrus" by Claire Vaye Watkins

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Visionary and terrifying, all the moreso for being vivid and startlingly real, Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus forces us to consider a world too ghastly to consider. And in that world the tendencies of humans become all too predictable, repeating the same behaviors that have plagued the race forever. This novel will focus your attention like very few others will. Its sweep and energy and horror all executed with sharp, assured artistry, it clearly fulfills the promise of Ms. Watkins’s earlier short story collection, Battleborn.

Far enough into a profligate, misguided future, no water exists in the western half of North America, and the United States has basically evacuated the land west of the Mississippi, and then written it off.  Our story begins in the lawless, desiccated waste of Los Angeles, where Ray and Luz try to make their way. They prop up each other’s inadequacies and forgive each other’s crippling histories, but then they do something they should never do - they take on another mouth to feed, a third thirst. A toddling, runty, tow-headed girl, perhaps a little developmentally challenged, very apparently needs rescuing, and so they snatch her away.

“Away” turns out to be the leading edge of a dune sea, a hellish, inexorable, mobile environmental disaster, thousands of feet high, feeding on and exacerbating the desert Southwest. The little one becomes a pawn eventually in a con game, run by the charismatic chief of a group of fugitive vagabonds, who are even further beyond the arm of the law or society. She is the one negotiable chip, this little waif, in a bold, perhaps maniacal power play between grownups who serve her very ill.

And here we arrive at the tenor of Gold Fame Citrus: people are ready to use you for their own ends, particularly if those ends center on self-preservation. Characters launch ill-conceived gambits, or engage in cynical bluffs, or manipulate their way to murky ends - all this against a dystopian backdrop that promises no more than certain, agonizing death. But to the great credit of our esteemed author, these designs continue to show venal, suspicious, or rapacious human nature in high relief. Ms. Watkins has constructed a wasted framework for this all-too-human theater, a combination powerful and effective. It’s superb, impressive work.

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