As California burns . . .
No matter how you slice and dice author Claire Vaye Watkins, she is an important new voice in literature. Watkins was born in 1984 in Bishop, California to her dynamic mother, Martha Watkins, and her father, Paul Watkins, a former member of the Charles Manson Family. She grew up in the Mohave Desert, in Tecopa, California and Pahrump, Nevada—the desolate landscape a clear influence on her writing. She graduated from the University of Nevada Reno and then earned her MFA from Ohio State University where she was a Presidential Fellow.
Watkins sprang onto the scene with Battleborn , and her debut short story collection won a multitude of literary prizes: the Story Prize, the Dylan Thomas Prize, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award, and a Silver Pen Award from the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame. Her writing chops led to several honors: a Guggenheim Fellow, one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35” and Granta’s “Best Young American Novelists.” Her stories and essays have appeared in respected publications, such as Granta, Tin House, Freeman’s, The Paris Review, Story Quarterly, New American Stories, Best of the West, The New Republic, The New York Times, and Pushcart Prize XLIII.
I read her speculative fiction/cli-fi novel, Gold Fame Citrus  as California fires obliterated entire communities in the blink of an eye. The novel was named the Best Book of the Year by The Washington Post, NPR, Vanity Fair, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Huffington Post, The Atlantic, Refinery 29, Men's Journal, Ploughshares, Lit Hub, Book Riot, Los Angeles Magazine, Powells, BookPage, and Kirkus Reviews.
The story is set in a near future of extreme drought on the West Coast when most have fled the Golden State as giant dunes devour the land. What remains in the desert are the dregs of society, skittering like bands of rats over the leftovers of the rich and famous. The two main characters, Luz, a former poster child, and Ray, an army deserter, flow through this landscape like grains of sand tossed in the wind, unable to direct their lives. At a gathering of vagabonds, a child appears, lost and yet not lost. Luz decides to take the child and raise her, but the decision shoves them onto a path they had not planned. They flee east into the sea of dunes, imperiling their lives—and their souls.
Gold Fame Citrus is not a happy-go-lucky novel—think Lord of the Flies meets The Treasure of the Sierra Madre—but Watkin adds touches of humor into the crevices of her story, particularly wrapped around the character of Sal, exposed to the outside world through a pin hole of bizarre television shows, such as “Embalming with the Stars” and “Midgets of Middle Management,” and who befriends Ray when he finds himself trapped in Limbo Mine.
Reminiscent of Huxley and LeGuin, Watkins expertly weaves strands of metaphor and angst into this dystopian parable reflecting the ugliness and tenuous nature of humanity on the edge of survival. The insane, the desperate, and the unlucky gather in the middle of the desert into a tribe, devolving into hunter-gatherers, and ruled by an enigmatic master. The fantastical world Watkins creates on an ocean of sand, scattered with peculiar and broken characters, is more akin to a disturbing Alice in Wonderland than “what if” climate fiction. In fact, Gold Fame Citrus is a searing revelation of our human condition and the deep wounds within that never heal, crippling us along our journey in life.
Both a writer and teacher, Watkins is currently a professor of creative writing in the Helen Zell Writers’ program at the University of Michigan, following assistant professorships in creative writing at Princeton and Bucknell. She is the director and co-founder, with spouse, Derek Palacio, of the Mojave School, a festival of art and literature, supporting young writers in Pahrump, Nevada.
This review was originally published on FUTURISM on November 13, 2018.