Drought Lit

For the last several summers I’ve spent August in the Central Valley of California, swimming twice a day and eating guacamole for dinner. During the same last few years, the state’s drought, already ...

For the last several summers I’ve spent August in the Central Valley of California, swimming twice a day and eating guacamole for dinner. During the same last few years, the state’s drought, already worse than the records had ever seen, has intensified. The reservoirs are 20 percent full; the last mud puddles have evaporated off the creek that runs through town; fire season no longer stops for the winter.

While avoiding the Valley scorch one day last August at the University of California–Merced library, I found Claire Vaye Watkins’s first book, Battleborn

The landscape of drought-devastated California that I surveyed while reading Battleborn—brown pastures and abandoned subdivisions—eerily foreboded Watkins’s second book, the new novel Gold Fame Citrus, which is set in a post-apocalyptic, post-drought California 50-odd years in the future. Like Battleborn, it displays influences from all sides of the West.

Gold Fame Citrus tells the story of Luz and Ray, a couple surviving in a waterless Los Angeles by squatting in an abandoned Laurel Canyon mansion. The Santa Ana winds are blowing furiously, there’s hardly any food to be found, and sinister gangs haunt the streets. From one of these gangs, Luz and Ray rescue a baby, whom they name Ig. While the setting is spare and strange (with prose to match), the novel quickly adds family drama to its science fiction, tracking Luz’s attachment to her newfound daughter, the bonds and strife between her and Ray, and the pair’s off-the-cuff parenting. They set out from Los Angeles into the desert, hoping to make it past the vast and growing Mojave Desert to the rainier east coast, and arrive at a cultish community.

At first glance, Gold Fame Citrus appears to be a part of the current trend of post-apocalyptic novels that Public Books has already devoted recent attention to, citing concerns about capitalism, global warming, and increased natural disasters.1 But looking deeper, Gold Fame Citrus is more than anything else a regional novel; its intimacy with the region where it takes place sets it apart. A regional novel is a work whose commitments to verisimilitude are strongest in its engagement with setting. The level of attention that Gold Fame Citrus pays to the geography, history, and culture of California and the American West signals to its readers that they ought to pay attention to those surroundings—that the true plot may in fact be there.

I don’t wish to pigeonhole Gold Fame Citrus, or Watkins as an author, into some kind of parochial pastoral category by naming the work regional. I use the term favorably; the idea of the regional novel is inspiring. The regional quality allows readers to see a place in greater relief by filling it in with more information and detail than their own lives can supply. For readers within the novel’s region, that means helping them to see their surroundings more attentively, and to imagine their lives under slightly different circumstances. For readers elsewhere, it fosters greater understanding about people of an unfamiliar place and culture. And because the regional novel is so closely engaged with its surroundings, it is well suited to plots of conscience. The author can adopt a cause’s contingency—what will this look like if this activist battle is lost, what will it look like if it is won—as its basis.

Gold Fame Citrus doesn’t lack in imagination: there’s the Amargosa, “a vast tooth-colored superdune in the forgotten crook of the wasted west,” spreading from east Los Angeles all the way to Las Vegas; the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts have expanded so that they’ve “licked the bases of glaciers.” But it also asks why, when, and how. It traffics in the real. I laughed at Watkins’s invention of “the ration truck parked on Pico,” picturing a converted taco truck. She has named California’s drought refugees “Mojavs” and modeled them as futuristic Okies: in Texas and Oklahoma, from which their ancestors once fled the Dust Bowl, they meet signs that read “Mojavs Not Welcome.” Even the Amargosa has its logic: “Still came BLM and EPA and NWS and USGS, all assigned to determine why a process that ought to have taken five hundred thousand years had happened in fifty.”

The novel is also populated by every specter of the dream of the American West: Brigham Young, Chinatown, psychedelia, mining companies, government agencies, environmental organizations, cults, surfers, John Muir. From time to time Watkins pulls out all the stops, putting the structure that undergirds the West on display in a way that seems drawn more from a Wallace Stegner essay than anything fictional:

Who had latticed the Southwest with a network of aqueducts? Who had drained first Owens Lake then Mono Lake, Mammoth Lake, Lake Havasu and so on, leaving behind wide white smears of dust? Who had diverted the coast’s rainwater and sapped the Great Basin of its groundwater? Who had tunneled beneath Lake Mead, installed a gaping outlet at its bottommost point, and drained it like a sink? Who had sucked up the Ogallala Aquifer, the Rio Grande aquifer, the snowpack of the Sierras and the Cascades? If this was God he went by new names: Los Angeles City Council, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, City of San Diego, City of Phoenix, Arizona Water and Power, New Mexico Water Commission, Las Vegas Housing and Water Authority, Bureau of Land Management, United States Department of the Interior.

When thinking about literary fiction in the American West, it is nearly impossible to ignore Stegner’s influence. Stegner, who received the University of Iowa English Department’s second degree in creative writing, won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, served as assistant to the Secretary of the Interior under Kennedy and wrote the introduction to the Wilderness Act, hangs over Western letters as a (mostly) benevolent specter. He considered himself a novelist foremost, but the novels, many about white male professors growing old, call out for more diverse, contrapuntal voices from the region. His currency is better maintained by his nonfiction.

Stegner’s nonfiction is also the clearer influence on Gold Fame Citrus, and not just in the essayistic paragraphs. An early description of Luz says that “she was now plagued with … the melancholy of finishing an excellent book—a biography of John Wesley Powell.” The novel’s acknowledgements reveal the source: Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (or at least a fictionalized version of it).

Civil-War-colonel-turned-one-armed-geologist John Wesley Powell is remembered most for his 1869 exploration of the Green and Colorado Rivers, a three-month trip that included the first known passage by European Americans through the Grand Canyon. Based on his observations during that trip, he crafted legislation that resulted in the creation of the United States Geological Survey, the Public Land Commission, and the system of irrigation districts that remains in place in much of the West today. Stegner and other historians of the American West venerate Powell most for insights that went unheeded by the American government: Powell argued that property lines in the arid parts of the United States should be based on watershed boundaries rather than rectangles, that the arid lands could not be populated on the large, dense scale that the government was expecting, and that only a fraction of the vast land could be irrigated.

As if it were an antidote to the devastated world around her, throughout Gold Fame Citrus Luz carries the biography of Powell in a leather satchel pilfered from the Laurel Canyon mansion. She thinks of it and refers to it periodically, including at one moment in the desert when she makes a promise to “Ray and Colonel John Wesley Powell” that she will ration her water.

Beyond the championing by Stegner and a few others, for a long time Powell and his farsighted suggestions were largely forgotten. But the current extreme drought conditions throughout the West have sparked a conversation about whether the arid region can support its cities, agriculture, and—to borrow a phrase from Stegner—“ringworm suburbs,” which has in turn renewed interest in Powell’s legacy. Gold Fame Citrus follows two other books in the span of a year to engage with Powell’s story. The others are Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness by the writer and activist Rebecca Solnit
and The West Without Water by B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam, a professor of geography and earth sciences at UC Berkeley and an associate environmental planner and biologist at Caltrans, respectively.

Gold Fame Citrus is the only novel of the three: Solnit’s is a historical essay and The West Without Water is a book about earth science. Yet all three texts use Powell for the same purpose: to show that Americans were once given an admonition not to recklessly populate the West, and that we did not heed it. Solnit writes that “ignoring Powell has been the basis of almost everything that has come since [his report on the lands of the arid region], except literature on the [Colorado] river, which Powell presides over as a kind of god.”

Ingram and Malamud-Roam argue that adapting to increasingly scarce water resources in the West will require drastic changes in how our water is allocated and used, and that every individual will need to reduce his or her water footprint. But will they? “The historical record is not encouraging. The arid West has experienced a continuing population expansion, despite early warnings by John Wesley Powell in the late nineteenth century.”

Gold Fame Citrus and The West Without Water share another common ancestor in the narrow Owens Valley, located on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains at the edge of California. In a May 2015 interview with Full Stop, Watkins said that she was “struggling for about a year to figure out how [Gold Fame Citrus] would end, and then I went on this trip to the Owens Valley on the eastern part of the Sierras and when I was there it all clicked. I felt like once I knew the characters would be in a place like that, then I knew what they would do and what the thematics would be and how the language should be working. All kinds of stuff came out of just orienting myself in space.”2

The West Without Water tells us part of the reason that the Owens Valley is significant to Watkins’s conscientious plot about water. Some of the most important research about the climatic and hydrological history of the West recounted in The West Without Water was conducted in the Owens: more precisely, eight thousand feet above the valley floor, in a forest of ancient bristlecone pine trees whose stand is over four thousand years old and contains the oldest living tree on earth. Because the trees record shifts in temperature and precipitation in their yearly growth rings, by linking the patterns in dead trees with those of living ones, paleoclimatologists have been able to trace the climatic history of the region back 10,000 years. This means that the Owens Valley has a crucial role to play in understanding past droughts and other conditions in California, and in helping scientists predict what might be in store for the future. Unfortunately, The West Without Water warns us, the last century—when all our water compacts were signed, agriculture was developed, and expectations were set—was an extremely wet one; indeed the drought that currently stretches across the West may be the “new normal.”

<i>Cadiz Dunes, California</i>. Photograph by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management / Flickr

Cadiz Dunes, California. Photograph by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management / Flickr

Another part of the Owens’s relevance is told in the epigraphs to Gold Fame Citrus. Book One’s epigraph is a quote by William Mulholland: “There it is. Take it.” Mulholland was the commissioner of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) in the early 20th century, when he gradually secured all the major water rights to the Owens Valley and constructed a 233-mile aqueduct to move water from it to the San Fernando Valley. The aqueduct left the Owens parched, salty, and infertile. The LADWP celebrated the aqueduct’s centennial in 2014, with hoopla that included an actor hired to play Mulholland as he gestured to the aqueduct and uttered his most famous words.

Driving through the Owens, you accept its desert without thinking, because it has long been forgotten that it was once full of small farms and ranches. Remember that history, and the valley functions as a sign of things to come, a California edging toward that of Gold Fame Citrus, which Luz describes as “a land whose rape was in full swing before she was even born.” It’s a warning that all the genres—history, earth science, fiction—convey in their own way, each as necessary as the others.

The epigraph to Book Two of Gold Fame Citrus is taken from The Land of Little Rain, a 1903 essay collection by Mary Austin, who lived and wrote in the Owens in the early part of the 20th century. (The Land of Little Rain happens to sit in first place atop the San Francisco Chronicle’s “Western 100” nonfiction list, right above Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian.) “A land of lost rivers, with little in it to love; yet a land that once visited must be come back to inevitably,” it reads. “If it were not so there would be little told of it.” Not too long after the collection was published the Owens lost the California Water Wars, as the battle between the Valley and the LADWP is now known, and the valley changed forever.

Austin’s essays teach their readers to appreciate the desert by looking at it carefully, and Book Two of Gold Fame Citrus takes on a similar task. The government has decided that the way to keep the Amargosa from spreading further is to destroy it. The “BLM’s Survey of the Area Surrounding and Encompassing the Amargosa Dune Sea …—the Bureau’s shortest survey to date—is itself salted with words like inhospitable, barren, bleak, and empty. A desert deserted, the official line,” Watkins writes. Though touched with the supernatural, the line recalls the treatment by the government and citizens alike of Nevada as a place useful only for testing bombs and burying waste—I think of the antinuclear bumper sticker printed by Citizen Alert that reads, “Nevada is not a wasteland.” Luz adds a primer, “Neo-fauna of the Amargosa Dune Sea,” to the John Wesley Powell biography in her satchel, and makes this other lesson of the novel clear: when you look closely, no place is barren.

This revelation is central to Luz’s attraction to the cult-like community that she finds in the Amargosa’s territory. The author of the primer is Levi Zabriskie, the cult’s leader and an evangelist of the vitality of the Amargosa. “We’re told this is a wasteland because they need it to be a wasteland,” he tells Luz. “And we want to stop it because it reminds us of our tremendous neglect and of the violence we’ve done to this place. Your friend Powell knew that … Step one: establish that it’s barren. Step two: destroy it.”

Watkins has proven herself capable of synthesizing the contradictions of the American West—its sublime, strange, gorgeous, and grisly elements—into fiction that is compelling and smart.

Levi’s plan to reframe the condition of the Amargosa and save it from destruction rests on an underdeveloped subplot having to do with Luz and Ig. The novel’s first chapter tells us that when Luz was born, she was adopted by the California Bureau of Conservation as an emblem of California’s water crisis. “Her milestones announced in press releases, her life literal and symbolic the stuff of headlines, her baby book lousy with newspaper clippings.” Levi plans to capitalize on Luz’s past as “Baby Dunn” by making baby Ig the mascot of the Amargosa: use Luz’s daughter to humanize the sea, just as Luz humanized the water crisis for her generation. The problem is that the “Baby Dunn” subplot, worthy of a novel itself, gets dropped way back in Book One; we’ve forgotten it, and it doesn’t bear much on Luz’s character.

The arc of the story is also bottom-heavy. We’re almost halfway through the novel before the cult that drives the plot appears. Book One, which spends more time establishing the setting than advancing the plot, stagnates, lacking the excitement that abandoned shopping centers and McMansions should exude, and falling into occasional heavy-handedness (“Sun of suns. Drought of droughts. These were their days now …”).

When Ray and Luz do get into the Amargosa, its setting feels unfortunately barren, given the plot’s insistence to the contrary. Despite the primer, we’re told to picture sand dunes, a “calcium-colored crust capping the range” that “throbbed with heat, glowed radioactive with light.” On the other hand, just before they pull into the Amargosa, Watkins describes a stand of desiccated yuccas:

Luz held Ig to her as she walked among the moon-cast shadows of the yuccas, smelling charcoal, saline. The baby went quiet, as if even she, irreverent devil that she was, recognized they were traipsing through something sacred. The yuccas were white in the moonlight and some had holes bored in their shaggy trunks, holes so perfect the wind would have whistled through them, except there was no wind. Some of their spines were gauzed with glistening webs.

Here Watkins pays careful attention to the ruined world, yielding poignant observations the likes of which we don’t see again. It makes me think that the message about wastelands might have been better accomplished with a less catastrophic new world: the world of the yuccas seems ruined enough, and getting used to finding beauty in these kinds of disfigured environments is a skill we must all slowly learn in our own world.

Some of these problems with the novel—the lost theme that could have been so interesting, the lopsidedness, the feeling of barrenness—might stem from an over-reliance on its patchwork origins. The references and actors and historically influenced story lines sometimes feel distracting and gratuitous: Sacajawea here, dowsers there; a jeremiad here, a psychedelic trip there. The novel seems not to have gotten the chance to cut itself off from its influences long enough to grow into a work that revels in its eclectic origins but isn’t overwhelmed by them, a narrative that is confident in its own voice.

If these are flaws, however, I expect that they’re not more than growing pains, the kinks of a first novel. Watkins has proven herself capable of synthesizing the contradictions of the American West—its sublime, strange, gorgeous, and grisly elements—into fiction that is compelling and smart. I look forward to more work from both Watkins and from other writers, of any region, who are willing to take up the task that she has, of fiction based in rigorous engagement with regional history and vernacular culture. I look forward to novels that feel like ethnographies of the now and soon, like small-town newspaper clippings, cowboy songs, corridos, global warming parables, and their own creations, all at once. icon

Featured image: Scientists prepare for planet Mars via the Mojave. Photograph by woodleywonderworks / Flickr