This strange world feels less like a fantasy than a premonition—urgently important and deeply plausible.
Why I love it
There's plenty to distinguish the dystopian California depicted in Gold Fame Citrus from the real one: the state has been evacuated by the government, its borders have been sealed, and most of its landmass has been gobbled up by a giant white sand dune. It's a sign of Watkins's enviable powers as a writer that this strange world feels less like a fantasy than a premonition'the future she's created feels urgently important and deeply plausible.
She's gotten an assist, it's true, from the ongoing drought in the West. (For real-life Californians, Watkin's apocalypse might be just a bit too plausible.) The drought in Gold Fame Citrus has lasted for more than twenty years, long enough for most of the state's residents to flee eastward; the ones who stayed behind scrap with each other for scraps: "ration cola," derelict houses, and contraband fruit smuggled from wetter, happier places. They cluster along the coast, too cussed to do much but survive.
That's how we find Luz and Ray, two young survivors squatting in a movie star's abandoned mansion in the charred hills above Los Angeles. After they rescue a malnourished child from a group of drifters, they are forced to leave their home and head into the desert, where they find a community that has all the hallmarks of a cult: a charismatic leader, a mass of credulous followers, a suspicious number of attractive young female disciples. Will they join the cult or, by fighting it, risk death in the dunes?
Watkins is a great writer of sentences, with an allergy to clichÃ© and a well-tuned sense of how to balance the beautiful and the hard-edged in her prose. My guess is that her work is another proof of Maya Angelou's dictum that "easy reading is damn hard writing." The effort, thank goodness, pays off page after page.
I would say that Watkins borrows from a rich tradition of post-apocalyptic stories that play out in the desert: Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Stephen King's The Stand, the Mad Max movies. It's certainly as memorable as any of those works. But here's where I should probably mention that Watkins's father was a member of the Manson Family, and she grew up in Death Valley. Did she use some of her family history to create the world of this novel—I certainly hope so. It's nice to think that a past so unlucky could lead to a book this brilliant.