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Hollow Fruits and Spiritual Totems: A Review of Gold Fame Citrus by Clair Vaye Watkins

October 04, 2015 | The Crew

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Disregarding weather reports of temperatures reaching 102º, I strapped on my pack and started out on the Tuxachanie Trail in Stone County, Mississippi, for a night in the woods with a flask of rum and a journal to get some “real writing” done out under the stars like Thoreau. Not the most experienced of campers, I loaded my pack with enough crap to buckle a Marine’s knees and began my two-mile waddle down the trail.

 

The Tuxachanie Trail cuts through the De Soto National Forest where there’s an abundance of pines and the occasional rock. That is to say, the scenery is purgatorially repetitive, especially when you’ve got your entire summer wardrobe and kitchen cabinet strapped to your back, growing so even more when both your Nalgene bottles have gone dry and your CamelBak begins to make that familiar hollow-slurp, growing so yet more when you realize you have no cell phone reception and the only person who knows your whereabouts is the cashier at the Chevron where you stopped to buy a couple last-minute granola bars.

 

You’ll know I gave up hope of survival and/or rescue because I took my shirt off. Never would I ever. Then, lucky me, the campsite appeared around the next corner. Salvation. Water. Rest.

 

Even when the sun went down, and even after drinking more water than I’ve ever even seen, I couldn’t shake the almost-dehydrated, semi-heatstroke woozies. I set up my little tent across the pond and just sat. Sometimes I looked at the stars. I ate, but just a little. I only wanted water. Eventually I tried to sleep, but the campsite was adjacent to a country road and every so often a loud, country truck would come rumbling through. Some even stopped to do God-knows-what. I was certain they were coming to kill me. They did not.

 

In my woozie, exhausted delirium—in those precious, quiet intervals between interloping rednecks (an affectionate term)—I had what I’ll call “visions.” A Choctaw outside the tent. Some kind of dog, probably a hungry wolf. A light in the sky. A young woman in a soccer get-up. Tiffs of terror. Flashes of fear. All that good stuff.

 

Because I lived through that ridiculous and self-inflicted turmoil, I had a particular connection with Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus. It’s a book about the dry, dry Southwest of the near future where people are parched and desperate, where they live on grocery-store scraps and hot, sticky ration cola, where everything familiar has either been coated in dust or ground to it.

 

Obviously, things weren’t that bad for me. But I was real thirsty.

 

I’ve read my share of post-apocalyptic novels, and while I like to think I’ve had my fill of them, I apparently haven’t. And it’s apparent the genre isn’t going away. And while Gold Fame Citrus does have that same desolate feel—society is unrecognizable, lots of people are dead, money doesn’t mean as much, celebrity means zilch—Watkins fills this novel with a lot of new life that makes the apocalypse somehow promising and magical. For every roving gang of violent teenagers, there’s a beautiful, low-slung forest of scorched yucca. For every snake oil-peddling huckster, there’s a weirdo gypsy fertility cult. For every subterranean prison, there’s a renegade naturalist cataloguing strange new species (with pictures!). For every cow goat carcass floating in a pool of sulfur, there’s a kindhearted moleman living in a bombed-out casino.
But those are in the periphery.

 

We follow Luz Dunn who was adopted at birth by the Bureau of Conservation. It was a grand gesture to say, “We will save this land, this water, for Baby Dunn!” It didn’t work out, though she was something of a celebrity prior to everyone decamping the wasteland.

She’s 25 now and living in the abandoned home of “the starlet” (we never get who, exactly) in the hills above Laurel Canyon with Ray, an army deserter-turned-surfer dude. I’m no reader of romance novels, but it has what I’d consider the makings of a good one. At about 30 pages in, I even said so to my wife. Things changed quickly after that.

 

In a scheme to get some much sought-after blueberries, Luz and Ray come across a less-than-two-year-old girl named Ig who’s living with unsavory and probably lecherous characters. They “adopt” her (more like abduct, but they’re caring, nurturing abductors) and realize they’ve got to get out of California, out of the Southwest. A desert wasteland is no place to raise a child.
For that reason, you can’t really call it “post-apocalyptic” because the rest of the country (and who knows about the world) is doing relatively all right. There are places, like the East Coast, where things operate relatively normally. It’s a local-apocalypse, and I think we’d do well to remember those are possible. When we think “apocalypse,” we think of big, bad seismic things happening—asteroids or global nuclear war or an ice age. Climate change, genocide, crop failure—those things happen on a smaller scale, but we call them “tragedies” despite the fact that, for the people living out those experiences, it’s apocalyptic. It’s the loss of everything familiar.

 

When surrounded by desolation, the instinct would be to move away from that desolation. If, for instance, your house were burning down, you would likely run out of the house and down the street. If I were smarter, I’d have about-faced on the Tuxachanie Trail when my first Nalgene went dry after 10 minutes of hiking. In this case, Ray and Luz—on the advice of their robe-clad, pseudo-psychic, goateed buddy Lonnie—head toward the Amorgosa.
Even if you read this (and you should!) you won’t be sure what the Amorgosa is, such is its nature. And because of it, Gold Fame Citrus does not fit neatly as an environmentalist propaganda piece. The Amorgosa is a vast, moving mountain—like a tectonic glacier—that brings blasting wind and choking sand and unavoidable destruction. It can’t be stopped, and it’s probably not the result of 150 years of us humans treating our planet like a trash heap. (Though it might be the Earth rejecting us.) Deadly as it is, people who see the Amorgosa’s white-shining peaks are drawn to it like flies. Ray and Luz aren’t immune to its tug. Neither was I.

 

At the base of the mountain they find a desert prophet and his disciples. His name is Levi, and he’s got water. Don’t ask him how. Just know that he’s got it, and trust he’ll always have it. They have fresh food. They have bathtubs. They only drink ration cola when they want to. They are happy. They sing songs around campfires. They have an RV of earthly delights. They have blueberries. What more do you need? In a barren landscape, it’s an oasis. In the midst of chaos, it’s civilization.

 

Because Luz’s world is so sparse, and because Claire Vaye Watkins paints it so convincingly, I found myself willing to believe anything. I saw the Amorgosa not as a destructive force but as a spiritual totem. I saw teeming life where there were cesspools. I saw radiance where there was all-consuming fire. I saw nourishment in hollow fruits.

 

One parched night in the woods, weakened and alone, makes you see things, and you believe them whether or not you want to. When you’re untethered from familiarity, order, creature comforts, you become guillible.

 

In various decades and for various reasons, people flocked to California for gold, fame, and citrus. They uprooted themselves for a shiny myth. What made them so gullible as to believe they’d find it? What private apocalypse were they running from?

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