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The much-anticipated first novel from a Story Prize-winning “5 Under 35” fiction writer.
In 2012, Claire Vaye Watkins’s story collection, Battleborn, swept nearly every award for short fiction. Now this young writer, widely heralded as a once-in-a-generation talent, returns with a first novel that harnesses the sweeping vision and deep heart that made her debut so arresting to a love story set in a devastatingly imagined near future:
Unrelenting drought has transfigured Southern California into a surreal, phantasmagoric landscape. With the Central Valley barren, underground aquifer drained, and Sierra snowpack entirely depleted, most “Mojavs,” prevented by both armed vigilantes and an indifferent bureaucracy from freely crossing borders to lusher regions, have allowed themselves to be evacuated to internment camps. In Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon, two young MojavsLuz, once a poster child for the Bureau of Conservation and its enemies, and Ray, a veteran of the “forever war” turned surfersquat in a starlet’s abandoned mansion. Holdouts, they subsist on rationed cola and whatever they can loot, scavenge, and improvise.
The couple’s fragile love somehow blooms in this arid place, and for the moment, it seems enough. But when they cross paths with a mysterious child, the thirst for a better future begins. They head east, a route strewn with danger: sinkholes and patrolling authorities, bandits and the brutal, omnipresent sun. Ghosting after them are rumors of a visionary dowsera diviner for waterand his followers, who whispers say have formed a colony at the edge of a mysterious sea of dunes.
Immensely moving, profoundly disquieting, and mind-blowingly original, Watkins’s novel explores the myths we believe about others and tell about ourselves, the double-edged power of our most cherished relationships, and the shape of hope in a precarious future that may be our own.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Punting the prairie dog into the library was a mistake. Luz Dunn knew that now, but it had been a long time since she’d seen a little live thing, and the beast had startled her. She’d woke near noon having dreamed a grand plan and intending to enact it: she would try on every dress in the house. They hung like plumage in the master closet, in every luscious color, each one unspeakably expensive—imagine the ones the starlet had taken with her! In the dream Luz had worn every dress all at once, her breasts bestudded with rhinestones and drenched in silver dust, her ass embroidered with coppery alleyways of sequins, pleated plumes of satin fanning from her hips, pale confectioners’ tulle floating like spun sugar at her feet. Of course, things went one-at-a-time in the lifeless waking world.
It was important to have a project, Ray said, no matter how frivolous. The Santa Anas winged through the canyon now, bearing their invisible crazy-making particulate, and Ray said she should try to keep her hands busy. She should try not to sleep so much. Some of Ray’s projects included digging out the shitting hole and siphoning gasoline from the luxury cars abandoned throughout the canyon.
Yesterday, Luz’s project had been to present Ray with a gift of herself swaddled like a chocolate in a fur coat she’d excavated from one of the cavernous hall closets, though she was not so dark as chocolate. She’d roasted under the mink, her upper lip already jeweled over and trembling with sweat when she breached the backyard where Ray was working, into the ever-beaming, ever-heating, ever-evaporating sun. Sun of suns. Drought of droughts. These were their days now, Luz and Ray and the merciless sun up in the canyon, a family of light in this mansion cantilevered into the hillside, a bridge for a driveway. Luz had shucked the preposterous coat to the dirt and instead napped naked on a sun-stiffened chaise under the lines of a leafless grapevine until dinner. The once Ray approached her, sliding his hand between her knees, she’d groaned: too hot for sex. The mink was still heaped out back, sculpture of a failure.
This project was better, she confirmed, twisting before the easel mirror in a peachy silk shift, lovely even against her grimy skin. In the closet was a handwoven poncho of oranges and golds, perfect for the shift, except wool was suicide. Instead, a Hermès scarf—no, a delicate tennis bracelet whose tiny clasp gave her some trouble. Like dewdrops strung around her wafer wrist, something the photographers would have said. But practically everyone was thin now. Luz stepped out of the shift and wriggled into a clinging cobalt mermaid gown dense with beads. It was gorgeous and she was gorgeous in it, even with her filthy hair and bulgy eyes and bushy brows and teeth that jutted out from her mouth as if leading the way, the front two with a gummy gap between them that caused her to seal her thin top lip to her plump bottom lip, even when she was alone, even now as she twirled and the dangly beads went click click click, softly. She looked liquid and wanted to show Ray.
Luz tromped down the floating railless stairs in the gown and rubber galoshes and a feather headpiece, baubles winking on every finger and one wrist. At the bottom of the stairs, she froze. Across the foyer, watching her, the tawny, beady-eyed rodent. It stood on its hind legs. It sniffed the air. Its nimble claws worked at something. Kind of cute. Except it dipped its head and maybe came at her. Luz panicked, shrieked, and executed a long-stride slo-mo kick of unexpected grace and force, some long-lost AYSO girlhood reflex risen from the resin of her quads.
They were a tired joke, the galoshes. Ditto umbrellas, slickers, gutters and storm drains, windshield wipers. This place had not seen so much rainfall as to necessitate galoshes in her entire life. But thank God for them, else the rodent might have ribboned her bare foot with its claws instead of flying through the open door of the library, going scree. A horrifying sound, that scree, and in her horror Luz slammed the blond wood door closed, setting it shuddering on its casters. A cruel instinct she was paying for hours later, for she was now plagued with a hefty boredom and the melancholy of finishing an excellent book—a biography of John Wesley Powell—and had nothing new to read.
The question, now, was whether to interrupt Ray—in the yard constructing a half-pipe from the plywood they’d pried off the windows and doors of the starlet’s ultramodern château—or to handle this prairie dog situation herself. Scree, it said. She went out onto the balcony and called down to her love.
Ray squinted up at her and whistled. “Looking good, babygirl.”
Luz had forgotten about her mermaid ensemble, and a little zing of delight accompanied the compliment. “How’s it coming?” she called.
“What an embarrassment,” he said, shaking his head. “Ten million empty swimming pools in this city, and we get this one.”
The embarrassment was adjacent to his would-be half-pipe: the starlet’s long-drained swimming pool, its walls not smooth concrete but a posh cobble of black river stones, its shape not a scooped-out basin but a box. Hard edges and right angles. Patently unshreddable. A shame, was all Ray said when he first knelt down and felt it, though his eyes had gone a pair of those smooth, globular kidney pools in the Valley. Ray had been to the forever war—was a hero, though he’d forbidden the word—and he went places sometimes.
Here, he was shirtless, all but gaunt, torquing his knees against a pane of plywood. His unbound hair was getting long, clumped and curling at his shoulders. On the bottom of the dry pool were smeared a few dreadlocks of dehydrated slime, pea-colored and coppery. Haircuts, Luz thought. Tomorrow’s project.
She watched him work a while, leaning on the balcony rail as the starlet might have. It was impossible to be original and inspired living as she was, basically another woman’s ghost. Ray could dismantle the starlet, splinter her, hack her up and build with her bones, but Luz languished beneath her. They wore the same size everything.
When Ray said up in the canyon Luz had seen porticos and candelabra, artisanal tiles, a working bath with a dolphin-shaped spigot patinaed turquoise and matching starfish handles, birds’ nests in chandeliers, bougainvillea creeping down marble columns and dripping from those curlicue shelves on the walls of villas—what were they called? But the place they found was boxy and mostly windows. All slate and birchply, its doors slid rather than swung, the wrong style for columns. Any and all vinery was dead. Plantwise there was the dried pool slime and the gnarled leafless grapevine and spiny somethings coming through the planks of the deck, too savage to kill.
Below her Ray’s hammer went whap whap whap.
Sconces, they were called, and there were none.
Where were the wild things seeking refuge from the scorched hills? Where was the birdsong she’d promised herself? Instead: scorpions coming up through the drains, a pair of mummified frogs in the waterless fountain, a coyote carcass going wicker in the ravine. And sure, a scorpion had a certain wisdom, but she yearned for fauna more charismatic. “It’s thinking like that that got us into this,” Ray said, correct.
Nature had refused to offer herself to them. The water, the green, the mammalian, the tropical, the semitropical, the leafy, the verdant, the motherloving citrus, all of it was denied them and had been denied them so long that with each day, each project, it became more and more impossible to conceive of a time when it had not been denied them. The prospect of Mother Nature opening her legs and inviting Los Angeles back into her ripeness was, like the disks of water shimmering in the last foothill reservoirs patrolled by the National Guard, evaporating daily.
Yet Luz yearned for menagerie, left the windows and doors open day and night to invite it, even when Ray complained of the dust, even when he warned that the Santa Anas would drive her insane. Maybe true, for here was this varmint scurrying in her head. Here, finally, was a brave creature come down to commune in the house that wasn’t theirs—it didn’t belong to anyone!—and what had she done? Booted the little fellow in the gut and locked him away.
Air hazy and amber with smoke. Malibu burning, and Luz’s old condo with it. Ticks clinging to the dead grass. Sand in the bedsheets and in her armpits and in the crack of her ass. Jumping bugs nesting in the mattress, all the more pestilent for being probably imagined. Some ruined heaven, this laurelless canyon.
Luz had read that they used to fight fires by dangling giant buckets from helicopters, filling the buckets at a lake and then dumping the water on them. The skies were batshit back then: bureaucrats draping valleys under invisible parachutes of aerosols, engineers erecting funnels to catch the rain before it evaporated, Research I universities dynamiting the sky. Once, an early canyon project, Luz and Ray hiked up the mountain called, horrifically, Lookout, and came upon a derelict cloud seeder, one of those barn-size miracle machines promised to spit crystalline moisture-making chemicals into the atmosphere. Another time they hiked up a back ridge and picnicked above that colorless archipelago of empty and near-empty tanks strung throughout the city. They ate crackers and ration cola and told stories about the mountains, the valley, the canyon and the beach. The whole debris scene. Because they’d vowed to never talk about the gone water, they spoke instead of earth that moved like water. Ray told of boulders clacking together in the ravine, a great slug of rubble sluicing down the canyon. That’s what geologists called it, a slug, and Luz was always waiting for the perfect slug, slow and shapeless and dark, filling all spaces, removing all obstacles. Scraping clean their blighted floodplain.
Ray often went up to the ridge with the notebook he kept in his pocket, but Luz had not been back. Some things were beyond her, such as opening the door to a seldom-used library walled with biographies of Francis Newlands and Abraham Lincoln and Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea and William Mulholland and John Muir (whom she had her eye on) and capturing the small gnawing mammal inside.
She went back to the starlet’s closet, dumped a pair of never-worn espadrilles from their box and brought the empty box to the yard. “I think there’s a prairie dog in the library,” she told Ray.
Ray stopped his hammering. “A prairie dog.”
“How’d it get in there?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you put it in there?”
“More or less.”
“Can you get it out?”
“Leave it,” he said, turning back to the half-pipe skeleton. Ray was not a reader. He used to read the newspaper every morning, but now that the newspapers were gone he said he was through with the whole reading and writing thing, though Luz had read the secret poems in his notebook.
“It’s not . . . humane,” she said, offering him the box. “Plus it’s probably crapping everywhere.”
He sighed, unbuckled his tool belt—some long-gone handyman’s—took the shoe box and loped into the house. She followed. He paused outside the library door. “How big was it?”
“Like, a football? I think it was rabid,” she lied. She was beginning to feel ridiculous.
He slid the library door closed behind him. Luz listened. The canyon was hot and still and so was the house. Then came a clamorous ruckus from the library. Ray said, Shitfuck. He said, Jesus.
He emerged like a wildman character making an entrance in a play, vexed and slamming the door behind him.
Luz asked, “Where’s the box?” Ray raised a silencing hand and strode from the foyer into the cavernous living room. Luz followed. He paced madly for a minute before seizing upon the sooty black poker by the fireplace and returning to the library.
Luz sat on the second step of the staircase and waited. There was more ruckus, a crash, the screeching of a desk chair shoved along the exposed concrete floor. Swears and swears. Then quiet. She wanted to open the door but would not.
“Did you get it?” she called eventually.
The door slid open a sliver and Ray’s red and sweaty head poked out. “You better not look.”
Luz put her face in the basin of her hands, then immediately lifted it. She gasped. Ray was before her. Aloft at the end of the poker, the throbbing body of the prairie dog, impaled. Its mouth was open and its forepaws twitched once, twice. Ray hustled outside.
Luz stood, queasy and overheated. She hovered above herself and saw that she was undergoing one of those moments in which she was reminded that Ray—her Ray—had, as part of his vocation, killed people.
She turned around and lurched up the stairs. She did not want to be around when he returned. Halfway up, she tripped. The floating stairs had always unnerved Luz and now they enraged her. She kicked the leaden galoshes from her feet down to the living room with some effort, staggered barefoot to the darkened bedroom, peeled off the suddenly chafing mermaid gown, climbed into the massive unmade bed and wept in the sandy nest of it.
She wept briefly for the creature, and then at great length for all her selves in reverse. First for Luz Dunn, whose finest lover and best friend was a murderer and perhaps always would be, then for Luz Cortez, mid-tier model spoiled then discarded. Emancipated at fourteen, her father’s idea, something he’d prayed on, amputated from him and from child labor laws. Then, finally and with great relish, she wept for Baby Dunn. Poster child for promises vague and anyway broken, born on the eve of some symbolic and controversial groundbreaking ceremony, delivered into the waiting blanks of a speech written for a long-forgotten senator:
Conservation’s golden child arrived at UCLA Medical Center at 8:19 this morning, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. William Dunn of San Bernardino, California. Eight pounds, eight ounces, the child has been adopted by the Bureau of Conservation, which embarks today on an heroic undertaking that will expand the California Aqueduct a hundredfold, so that Baby Dunn and all the children born this day and ever after will inherit a future more secure, more prosperous, and more fertile than our own. We break ground today so that there will be fresh water for drinking, irrigation and recreation waiting for Baby Dunn and her children . . .
Baby Dunn, born with a golden shovel in her hand, adopted and co-opted by Conservation and its enemies, her milestones announced in press releases, her life literal and symbolic the stuff of headlines, her baby book lousy with newspaper clippings:
GOVERNOR SIGNS HSB 4579; EVERY SWIMMING POOL IN CALIFORNIA TO BE DRAINED BEFORE BABY DUNN IS OLD ENOUGH TO TAKE SWIMMING LESSONS.
BABY DUNN STARTS KINDERGARTEN TODAY WITHOUT GREEN FIELDS TO PLAY IN.
LAST CENTRAL VALLEY FARM SUCCUMBS TO SALT: BABY DUNN, 18, NEVER AGAIN TO TASTE CALIFORNIA PRODUCE.
BERKELEY HYDROLOGISTS: WITHOUT EVACS BABY DUNN WILL DIE OF THIRST BY 24.
Now Luz was twenty-five and hung up on the logistics. Had her parents been paid? Was her envoyery prearranged or hatched last-minute? Some intern of the senator’s staked out in the maternity ward? Some go-getter do-gooder from a public Ivy, recorder in his coat pocket, scouring the waiting room for a photogenic and verbose new parent? How this young gunner must have delighted at finding Luz’s father, big German teeth, a pastor and a salesman, moved by the spirit to join the Rotary Club, to hit the gym by six every morning, to display the apple of his eye in church talent shows, to spend his wife’s financial aid on very good hair plugs. Billy Dunn would not have been in the delivery room, certainly not. Not his business to witness his wife’s woman’s body undergo its punishment. Not permitted by his temperament to acknowledge anything uterine, vaginal, menstrual, menopausal, pubescent. Not here, on the day of his only child’s birth, nor later when Luz’s mother was dead and Luz got leggy and bled purple and shreddy brown, when he could have said what was happening to her and what to do about it, when he could have said, as any man could have, what lay ahead for her. But he did not say, and instead she had stolen a plaid dishrag from the kitchen and cut it into strips with her dead mother’s scalloped scrapbooking scissors—such that the rag strips shared the peppy border of her baby book clippings—and tucked these strips up between her labia. Instead, she had learned from the other girls and from the photographers, often.
Luz, said Billy Dunn, is my cross to bear.
It was this she always landed on: her father pious and a chatterbox, maybe nervous, approached by a statesman’s underling in the hospital waiting room. Saying her name so it rhymed with fuzz before her mother, channeling Guadalajara, had a chance to correct him. Random, how she became the goddesshead of a land whose rape was in full swing before she was even born. Baby Dunn.
The ration hour came and went; Luz heard the hand pump screeching and Ray beneath her, filling his jug and hers. She lay in bed a long time, snotty and damp and staring at the dark drawn curtains and the heaps of clothing she’d mounded all over the room that were the millions of holes that pocked every hillside of the canyon, each with a tiny grainy dune at its mouth. She had thought the holes to be the burrows of chipmunks, but knew them now to be snake holes. Mammals were out. LA gone reptilian, primordial. Her father would have some scripture to quote about that.
After some time, Ray came into the bedroom and set a glass of lukewarm water on her nightstand. He stayed, silent, and Luz said, “Can you bring me John Muir?”
“Sure.” He went out, came back, and set the volume on the nightstand, beside her undrunk water. He perched himself on his edge of the bed and leaned over to touch her, gently.
“Say something,” she said. “Make me feel better.”
“I love you?”
He offered the glass. “Drink this.”
He tried, “I think it was a gopher. Not a prairie dog.”
This did make her feel a little better, somehow. She rolled to face him. “What did you do with him?”
Ray bit his cheek. “Threw it in the ravine. I can go down and get it if you want.”
“No,” she said. She would have liked to bury the little guy properly—make a project of it—but she was certain that if Ray went down into the ravine he would never come back.
“Come here,” Ray said, and hoisted Luz, nude and fetal, onto his lap. He took each of her fingers into his mouth and sucked the starlet’s rings off. He extracted the feathered headpiece from her hair and began tangling and untangling it with his fingers, something she loved immeasurably. “It’s Saturday,” he said.
“I didn’t know.”
“We could go down to raindance tomorrow. Try to get berries.”
She sucked up some snot. “Really?”
They laughed. Ray said, Here, and led Luz from the bed and into the master bathroom. He held Luz’s hand as she stepped naked into the dry tub, a designer ceramic bowl in the center of the room, white as a first tooth. Ray went downstairs and returned with his jug. He moistened a towel at the jug’s mouth and washed her everywhere. When he was finished he left her in the tub. “Stay there,” he said before he closed the door. She stayed in the dark, fiddling with the starlet’s bracelet, the diamonds having found some improbable light to twinkle. When Ray finally retrieved her, he carried her over his shoulder and flopped her down on the bed and only when she slipped her bare legs between the sheets did she realize that the cases, the duvet, every linen was smooth. He had snapped the infinite sand from them.
The sun had gone down and the doors to the balcony were open; she imagined the sea breeze making its incredible way to them. Tomorrow they would eat berries. They lay together, happy and still, which was more than anyone here had a right to be. She could tell Ray was asleep when the twitches and whimpers and thrashes began, the blocking of nightmares he never remembered. She held him and watched the bloodglow pulse in the east, the last of the chaparral exploding.
Luz had gotten, even by her own generous estimation, righteously fucked up. This occurred to her as the sun of suns dripped into the Pacific and she found herself barefoot at the center of a drum circle, shaking a tambourine made from a Reebok box with broken Christmas ornaments rattling inside and shimmying what tits she had. Luz was not a dancer; she had never been a dancer. But here the rhythm was elephantine and simple as the slurping valves in the body—an egalitarian tune. She jigged and stomped her bare feet into the dry canal silt. She worried for Ray a flash, then let it go. He was probably well aware of her situation, as was his way. Probably watching her from the periphery of the circle, sipping the home-brewed saltwater mash she’d been swilling all day.
And why shouldn’t she swill? They had liberated the starlet’s cheery, grass-green Karmann-Ghia, which Ray called the Melon, and descended from their canyon to the desiccant city, to the raindance, a free-for-all of burners and gutterpunks caterwauling and cavorting in the dry canals of Venice Beach, sending up music from that concrete worm of silt and graffiti and confettied garbage weaving fourfold through the nancy bungalows. They’d set up camp in the shade of a footbridge with its white picket handrails ripped off and Ray had procured a growler of mash and a baggie of almonds and six cloves of garlic the pusher called Gilroy, though nothing had grown in Gilroy for a decade. Happy day, day of revelry and bash, for money still meant in Los Angeles, even in the chaos of the raindance, and—hot damn!—Luz Cortez had earned plenty of it, modeling under her mother’s maiden name until her agency fled to the squalid mists of New York, and she too old to be begged to follow.
So vibe on, sister. Shake shake shake. Don’t trip on the fact that even money will go meaningless eventually. Don’t go sour simmering on what that money cost you, on UV flashes scorching your eyes to temporary blindness or pay docked for time in the ER or old men pinching your thighs, your fat Chicana ass, the girlish flesh pudged at your armpits, putting their fingers or one time a Sharpie up in you. Yes, you have been to Paris and Milan and London and all the rest and cannot remember a thing about them. But don’t feed the negativity, though you were always too flabby, too short, too hairy, too old, too Mexican. Ass too flat, tits too saggy, nipples too big—like saucers, one said. Don’t start that old loop of, Take your shirt off, and, Turn around, sweetheart, and, Bend over, and, Put the worm in your mouth, babe, you know what to do. Don’t get caustic, even if you were only fourteen and didn’t know what to do, had never done it before, had never even kissed a boy. Don’t stir up the hunger the hunger the hunger. Don’t think it was all for nothing.
Don’t think. Dance.
Because sweet Jesus money was still money, and wasn’t that something to celebrate? For now, enough money could get you fresh produce and meat and dairy, even if what they called cheese was Day-Glo and came in a jar, and the fish was mostly poisoned and reeking, the beef gray, the apples blighted even in what used to be apple season, pears grimy even when you paid extra for Bartletts from Amish orchards. Hard sour strawberries and blackberries filled with dust. Flaccid carrots, ashen spinach, cracked olives, bruised hundred-dollar mangos, all-pith oranges, shriveled lemons, boozy tangerines, raspberries with gassed aphids curled in their hearts, an avocado whose crumbling taupe innards once made you weep.
The rhythm went manic and Luz collapsed to the silt crust.
Woozy, she stood and careened stylishly through the party, up to the canal berm, the smooth, sloped concrete patch beneath the footbridge where she’d last seen Ray.
And there he was still, guarding their encampment, the growler of mash in one hand and the starlet’s bejeweled sandals in the other. The heel straps had been giving her trouble, Luz remembered now.
“I’m blotto,” she said, rubbing her forehead on his warm bicep.
“I know,” he said.
Ray knelt and set the growler between his feet on the pitched concrete. He took one of Luz’s dirty feet in his hand and put a shoe on, then the other. Luz wobbled and steadied herself with his fine broad back. When he finished, Ray dug a ration cola from his backpack, the only drink anyone had plenty of. It was warm and flat and thick with syrup—donated because the formula was off, was the rumor. But it was wet and this alone was reason enough to love him.
She sat and drank and Ray stood—he did not like to sit much—and consulted his list. Ray’s tiny notebook, looted from the back of a drugstore, was the old-timey reporter’s kind with the wire spiral at the top, such that before writing in it he should have licked the tip of his yellow golf pencil, gouged to sharpness with the Leatherman he carried.
Luz snooped in Ray’s notebook whenever possible, skimming his secret poems and skate park schematics and lists. Ray was a listmaker. He did not live a day without a list; Luz had never made a list a day in her life—their shtick. His lists went:
– shitting hole
– garage door
– lighter fluid
– marshmallows for L
– kitty litter
Or, often, only:
“Hey,” said Ray, batting her with his notebook. “I heard of a guy who has blueberries from Seattle.”
“Seattle,” she whispered, the word itself like rain. “Can I come?” She had never been on a procurement mission, as Ray called them.
“You want to?”
Luz squealed in the affirmative and finished her ration cola. Then they set off, hand in hand, Ray’s eyes as phosphorescent as the day she witnessed him birthed from the sea.
Ray had the blazing prophet eyes of John Muir, and like John Muir, war had left him nerve-shaken and lean as a crow. The ocean had restored him. The way he told it, a city of a ship bearing the emblem of the motherland deposited him in the riverless West, at San Diego. He was released—honorable discharge, had medals somewhere—but the whole way back he’d been jumpy, sleepless, barely keeping the darkness at the edges. Nothing soothed him until he heard the white noise of the breakers. So instead of going home to the heartland he liberated a surfboard from someone’s backyard and made his home in the curl. He had a mind to surf through all crises and shortages and conflicts past and present. He would make a vacuum of the coast, nothing could happen there, even the things that had happened before he was born. He was surfing the day they pronounced the Colorado dead and he was surfing the day it was dammed, a hundred years before. When some omnipotent current ferried him northward toward LA, he allowed it. He surfed as that city’s aqueducts went dry. He surfed as she built new aqueducts, wider aqueducts, deeper aqueducts, aqueducts stretching to the watersheds of Idaho, Washington, Montana, aqueducts veining the West, half a million miles of palatial half-pipe left of the hundredth meridian, its architects and objectors occasionally invoking the name of Baby Dunn. Ray surfed as concrete waterway crept up to Alaska, surfed as the Mojave and the Sonoran licked the bases of glaciers. He was surfing each time terrorists or visionaries bombed the massive unfilled aqueduct canals at Bend and Boise and Boulder and Eugene. He surfed as states sued states and as the courts shut down the ducts for good. He surfed as the Central Valley, America’s fertile crescent, went salt flat, as its farmcorps regularly drilled three thousand feet into the unyielding earth, praying for aquifer but delivered only hot brine, as Mojavs sucked up the groundwater to Texas, as a major tendril of interstate collapsed into a mile-wide sinkhole, killing everybody on it, as all of the Southwest went moonscape with sinkage, as the winds came and as Phoenix burned and as a white-hot superdune entombed Las Vegas.
Then, one day, Ray emerged from the thrashing oblivion of the Pacific at Point Dume, and there was a chicken-thin, gappy-toothed girl sitting in the sand beside a suitcase and a hatbox, crying off all her eye makeup.
Seawatery, gulping air and clutching his board to him, Ray approached her. What was the first thing he said? Luz could not now remember, but it would have been sparkling. She did recall his hands, gone pink with cold, and his pale aqua prophet’s eyes, and herself saying in response, “I haven’t seen anyone surfing in years. I forgot about surfing.”
His hope naked, Ray asked, “You surf?”
She smiled thinly and shook her head. “Can’t swim.”
“Serious? Where you from?”
“And you can’t swim?”
They sat quiet for a time, side by side in the sand, hypnotized by the beckoning waves.
“Where are you from?” she said, wanting to hear this wildman’s voice again.
“That’s right.” He grinned. He had an incredibly good-looking mouth.
“Why’d you come here?”
“I was in the military.”
“Were you deployed?”
“What did you do?”
He shrugged and snapped a seaweed polyp between his fingers. “You’ve heard that dissertation.”
He said his name and she said hers and then they sat again in quiet. At their backs, gone coral and shimmering in the sun’s slant, was a de-sal plant classified as defunct but that in truth had never been funct. They’d heard that dissertation, too.
Luz asked, “You going to evac there, Indiana?”
He told her about the sea and his needing it and then, when she suggested Washington State, he said California had restored him, that he would not abandon her. And eventually he told her too about the younger sister born without a brain, only a brainstem—so much like brainstump—that she was supposed to die after a couple of weeks, but she was twenty-one now and a machine still breathed for her, which made Luz think iron lung even though that was not quite right. The wrong mote of dust could kill her, said Ray. One fucking mote. And because of this his mother was always cleaning, cleaning feverishly, cleaning day and night, cleaning with special chemicals the government sent. She didn’t want Ray around. “It’s too much for her,” he said. “Anyway they’re screening pretty heavy in Washington now, and the only skills I have I never want to use again.”
“You’ve got charm,” she said. “Charisma.”
“I think they’re maxed out on charisma.”
“You can surf.”
“You know, I put that on my application.”
“What happened with it?”
“An orca ate it, actually.”
People always claimed they were staying, but Ray was the first person Luz believed. “So what are you going to do?” she asked.
“Some people I know have a place. Even if they didn’t, Hoosiers aren’t quitters. California people are quitters. No offense. It’s just you’ve got restlessness in your blood.”
“I don’t,” she said, but he went on.
“Your people came here looking for something better. Gold, fame, citrus. Mirage. They were feckless, yeah? Schemers. That’s why no one wants them now. Mojavs.”
He was kidding, but still the word stung, here and where it hung on the signage of factories in Houston and Des Moines, hand-painted on the gates of apartment complexes in Knoxville and Beaumont, in crooked plastic letters on the marquees of Indianapolis elementary schools: MOJAVS NOT WELCOME. NO WORK FOR MOJAVS. MOJAVS KEEP OUT. A chant ringing out from the moist nation’s playgrounds: The roses are wilted / the orange trees are dead / them Mojavs got lice / all over they head.
But Ray smiled and his kind mouth once again soothed Luz. “We’re stick-it-out people,” he said, but what he really meant, she knew, was they could be Mojavs together.
Ray brushed a hank of hair from her eyes and said, “You look like I know you.” Had he seen her before? Luz said maybe and sheepishly described the decaying billboard surveying Sunset Boulevard, her in sweatshop bra and panties, eyes made up like bruises, crouched over a male model’s ass like she was about to take a bite out of it. Get those freaky teeth, the art director had not even whispered. One papery panel peeling off now, so her bare legs looked shrunken, vestigial. “The zenith of my career,” she said. “Minus a commercial for wine coolers.”
Ray said, “No, somewhere else,” then Luz kissed him.
After, there was more silence between them, but it did not feel like silence. It felt like peace.
Ray asked, “What about you? You going to evac?”
They took you by bus. Camps in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, New Jersey. No telling which you’d end up at and anyway it didn’t matter. It was temporary, they said. The best thing you could do for the cause. She knew better, but she was scheduled to go anyway. The suitcase beside her was filled with novels and wads of designer clothes, the hatbox heavy with her savings. But she hated crowds, hated every human being except this one beside her. She suddenly and fiercely did not want to get on a bus tomorrow. She wanted to fall in love instead. Frightening herself, she said, “I was.”
So Ray took her home, to the gutted Santa Monica apartment complex from which his friends staged their small resistance. They had sex on Ray’s bedroll in the laundry room. After, he said, “I need you to promise me we won’t talk about the war.”
She said, “Promise me we won’t talk about the water.”
He said, “Wouldn’t dream of it.”
Now, dusk was coming to the dry rills of raindance. Luz followed Ray along the berm and, though it scared her, into a man-high rusty corrugated drainage culvert, where the berry man was supposed to be. Inside, a stench met them, fecal and hot. Something scraped about back in the darkness, something screeched. As the light at their backs wilted, Luz put one hand to her mouth and groped for Ray with the other. This was, she realized, probably not a good place to be a woman.
The starlet’s sandals began to slice into Luz’s heels again and she stumbled. “You okay?” Ray whispered. She nodded though she was dizzy and hot and there was a new pressure on the underside of her eyebones, and though Ray surely could not see her nodding in this semiterranean dark.
Soon, Luz’s pupils dilated wide enough to accept Ray’s silhouette ahead of her. She clung to him with one hand and traced the other along the metal wall of the pipe, flinching at its rust splinters and steadying herself as she lurched over knee-high sediment dunes and dry knolls of sewage. The culvert forked into a smaller pipe where Ray had to stoop. The sounds went human now; voices of people gathered to haggle and score ricocheted down the tube.
Fresh socks here, all-cotton socks.
Ovaltine, whole can, hep!
Luz and Ray continued, the culvert soon clogged with the crowd’s collective fetid lethargy. Wherever the pair walked, bodies blocked their path. Luz would have liked to hear some Spanish, to be reminded of her mother, but even here there was none, influx long ago turned to exodus. Ray lightly lobbed the words blueberries and Seattle into the darkness and what came back was Not me, white boy. Deeper, brother, and then, Um-hm. Careful. He nasty.
Finally Ray called blueberries and was tossed Here, son. From the darkness materialized a shirtless, ashy-skinned daddy-o, bald head glistening, tiny mouth gnawing on a black plastic stir straw. Beside him stood a Filipino with scarred hands and a backpack.
The daddy-o held a drained cola can aloft in the darkness. “King County blues. One-fifty.”
Ray took the can and examined it. He handed it to Luz. A handful of berries padded inside the aluminum. She put the can to her nose and thought she smelled the dulcet tang of them.
“Give you seventy-five,” said Ray.
The daddy-o bowed reverently to the can. “All due respect, son, these is some juicy-ass berries. Juicier than juicy pussy.” He winked at Luz. “Can’t give them up for less than a hundred.”
“Eighty,” the daddy-o said to his partner. He sucked his teeth.
The Filipino said, “Used to be a nigger could make a living in this city.”
“That’s all I got,” said Ray, though it was not.
“All you got, hmm,” said the daddy-o. He reached out to retrieve the can from Luz. She handed it over, but instead of taking the can from her, the daddy-o torqued his long-nailed index finger through the starlet’s tennis bracelet, still strung like dewdrops around her wrist. He yanked, but the bracelet held. Luz pinched her breath in her throat.
“I doubt that,” said the daddy-o.
“Hey,” said Ray, but Luz was saying, “Take it,” her fingers panicking against the mean little clasp.
The daddy-o flung Luz’s own hand back at her. “The fuck you think I am?” To Ray he said, “Two hundred.”
Ray gave the daddy-o two bills he’d brought from the hatbox they stored in the starlet’s drained redwood hot tub, took the can of berries and pulled Luz away. Her head was swooning and her sense of direction had left her. She wanted to flee on her own but was not sure she could find her way back through the culverts. It was all she could do to follow Ray, who kept dissolving into the darkness then rematerializing to tug her along. “Christ,” he whispered, meaning Christ, be more careful, and Christ you’re stupid, and Christ, I love you and you’re all I have and therefore you have an obligation to take better care of yourself. Luz gazed ahead, needing a glimpse of the daylight they’d left, but she saw only bodies, bodies. Someone trampled the heel of her sandal and she stumbled. She needed to get away from these fucking people, but they were everywhere. Then, mercifully, Ray led her into a dark, clear space.
Her eyes slowly registered the solid perimeter of people they’d broken through. Their mouths hung open, dumb, staring at her. No, not staring at her. Luz followed their gaze and saw beside her an old woman sitting on a collapsible metal lawn chair. She wore a dress that in its day had been festooned mightily but was now threadbare and freckled with cigarette burns. She wore watersocks, and dug into each of her livery shoulders was a huge macaw, one red and one blue.
Luz stood and watched the birds, fearfully transfixed. The circle of bodies pressed in closer. The red macaw pinched a nut or a stone in its beak, working at it with its horrid, digit-like black tongue. It twitched its head. It blinked its tiny malarial eye.
Suddenly Luz was breathing everyone else’s foul, expelled air and Ray was angry and gone and there was only so much air down here and everyone was sucking it up and where was he? Had he not heard of girls carried up out of the canal into one of the vacant houses whose dry private docks jutted overhead, homes once worth three and four and five million and now, every one of them, humid with human fluids? Had he not been with her the night she’d seen a woman stumble out of one of the houses, used and bewildered, and start to make her way back down to the canal and the music, only to be dragged back up again?
Luz stepped back from the birds and collided with a sickle-thin teenager. He wore a white T-shirt with some meanness written on the front in marker, and sagging holes where the sleeves should have been. Through these holes flashed his tattooed cage of a chest. There was a long tear up one leg of his jeans and along it dozens of safety pins arranged like staples in flesh. He held a rope, and at the end of it was a short-haired, straw-colored dog, wheezing. The boy laid his rough hand on the bare skin between Luz’s shoulder blades. He rubbed.
“Easy, sweetheart,” he said. From his mouth escaped the scent of rot.
Something leaden and malignant seized Luz’s heartmuscle. She wrenched away. “I can’t breathe,” she said, barely.
Ray turned. “What?”
“I can’t breathe.”
“What do you mean?”
He put his hand on the back of her neck.
“I can’t breathe,” she said. “I fucking can’t breathe.”
Ray didn’t laugh at this, though it was laughable. Luz knew it was even now, except the knowledge was buried somewhere in her beneath bird tongue and daddy-o and sweetheart asphyxiation.
“You’re okay,” he said. “Listen.”
She gripped his shirt in her hands and pulled. “I can’t breathe, Ray.”
“You’re all right,” he said. “Tell me.”
One of the birds went wrat, impossibly loud, and Luz flinched. Wrat again and she began to claw at Ray’s midsection. People were looking at them now, some laughing, and she had designs to open her boyfriend up and hide inside him.
Ray took Luz’s two scrambling hands in one of his like a bouquet and looked her in the eye. “You’re okay,” he said again. “Tell me.”
“I’m okay,” she said, though she was also dying.
“Tell me again.”
She looked at him; she breathed. “I’m okay.”
“We’re walking,” said Ray, taking her by the shoulders.
They walked and breathed and walked and breathed and soon a dim disk of light floated ahead of them. Ray led her to it, miraculously, Luz saying, I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay.
Their blanket—a duvet meant for guests of the starlet—was still under the footbridge when they got back, another miracle. Ray sat Luz down. He passed her his ration jug. She refused it and he passed her hers.
He watched her as she drank.
“Thank you,” she said after some time.
“Do you want to go home?” he asked. He wanted to see the bonfire, she knew. He said, “It’s fine if you do.”
What she wanted was a few Ativan and a bottle of red wine, but those days were over. It was cooler in the canal and the air was freshish, or at least it moved. The long shadows of the mansions stretched to shade them and the blanket had not been taken and there was Ray, trying. She told herself to allow these to bring her some comfort.
“No,” she said. “Let’s stay.” She sat on the blanket and breathed. Eventually, Ray asked whether she wanted to go back to the drum circle.
“Can we just sit here awhile?” she said.
“Don’t be,” Ray said, which was what he always said. He motioned for her to lie back and rest her head in his lap. She did. She fell asleep and dreamt nothing.
Luz woke needing to pee. It was nearly dark but fires were glowing along the spine of the canal, the bonfire down the row throbbing brightest of all. Ray had taken his shoes off and was lying on his back. Luz sat still, studying him in the smoky light: his willowy hands, his steady chest, the tuft of black hair in the divot of his collarbone, barely visible above the neck of his T-shirt. His flat, slightly splayed feet. Everything about him suggested permanence. She rose and kissed him on the head. “I have to pee.”
Ray started to stand.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I’m okay.”
Luz made her way up the wall of the canal. The trench beyond was dark and balmy with stink, but she was feeling much better. She straddled the trench, lifted her dress, urinated, shook her ass some then stood up. Yes, she was feeling better. The sun had gone down and the canals were cooling off, the nap had dissolved the throb in her head, as a good nap will. She was okay. She would have some more water, eat something. There were blueberries in Ray’s backpack and mash in the growler. She was all right. They would go back down to the drum circle. They would dance. They would bonfire. She would not ruin everything after all.
Descending the smooth dusty pitch of the canal, she looked down at the bonfire and then beyond it, where someone had set off a bottle rocket. She saw the little puff of smoke and heard the snap. Just then—at exactly the instant the snap reached her, so that the moment was ever-seared into her memory as a tiny explosion—something slammed into her knees. She looked down to see a shivering, towheaded child wrapped around her legs.
Luz could not remember the last time she’d seen a little person. The child was maybe two years old. A girl, Luz somehow knew, though she wore only a shoddy cloth diaper, its seat dark with soil. She looked up at Luz with eyes like gray-blue nickels, sunk into skeletal sockets. Her skin was translucent, larval, and Luz had the sense that if she checked the girl’s belly she would be able to discern the shadows of organs inside.
“Hi there,” Luz said.
The child stared unblinking with her coin eyes.
“Are you lost?” asked Luz. “Where’s your mommy?” The girl’s forehead bulged subtly above the brow and she pressed it now into Luz’s crotch. Luz, embarrassed, tried to pry the girl from her legs. But the child clutched tighter and let loose a high, sorrowful moan. Luz went weak with pity.
“Shh,” she said. “You’re okay.” Luz patted her back then, unthinkingly, put her fingers in the child’s whiteblond hair, tufted like meringue at the nape.
Excerpted from "Gold Fame Citrus"
Copyright © 2016 Claire Vaye Watkins.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
Gold Fame Citrus is an extraordinary novel, an American Inferno populated by Mojav refugees, hoodwinked dreamers, desert prophets and blue chupacabras. It's utterly fearless, relentlessly brilliant, and often savagely funny, too. Watkins's sentences are fever-bright and self-assured, hallucinatory in their vividness. She extrapolates from our present ecological crisis and imagines an America where the Mojave and Sonoran deserts lick at glaciers, where a migratory "dune sea" - an unforgettable creation swallows whole towns. It's a prescient and terrifying vision, and one that allows Watkins to explore the hydropolitics of a waterless West and cult devotion as she navigates the maze of human thirst in all its forms. At its flame blue core, however, this novel is a love story. On the run from the drugging sun, three survivors collide: ex-model Luz, ex-surfer Ray, their new daughter. Watkins, tracking their mutating hopes as they move through a literal limbo, is a true landscape artist, and she knows her characters to bedrock. She's got the unsentimental, comprehensive compassion of Denis Johnson or Joy Williamsa sensitivity that extends beyond our species to the desert world itself.
Praise for Battleborn:
“Dazzling.” –O, The Oprah Magazine
"The most captivating voice to come out of the West since Annie Proulx - though it's to early Joan Didion that [Watkins] bears comparison for her arid humor and cut-to-the-chase knowingness." –Vogue
"Absorbing… [Battleborn’s] true setting is a Faulknerian desert of the heart, where the soil is cursed by its precious metals and one’s personal history can be just as toxic. Clear-eyed and nimble in parsing the lives of her Westerners, one of Watkins’s strengths is not dodging that the simple fact that love can be tragic, involving, as it does, humans so flawed, so often tender and yet incapable.” –The Boston Globe
“Although individual stories stand alone, together they tell the tale of a place, and of the population that thrives and perishes therein… The historical sits comfortably alongside the contemporary and the factual nicely supplements the fictional… Readers will share in the environs of the author and her characters, be taken into the hardship of a pitiless place and emerge on the other side—wiser, warier and weathered like the landscape.” –Antonya Nelson, The New York Times Book Review
Gold Fame Citrus is a sun-hammered fever dream, not unlike the shimmering, sweltering Southwest it depicts. Your heart will be wrung out by the journey of Luz, Raymond, and Ig. Your imagination will feast on the assured depiction of a near-future that is burnt to a crisp. And you'll hope it's all a mirage as Watkins renders a hot and very plausible future with the frightening force of a burning inevitability.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In a chock full of dystopian futures literary landscape, this book stands out via the poetic imagery , hypnotic pacing and wry observation of 21st Century cultural markers.
Beautiful imagery and lessons for us all
This has got to be the worst book ever written a waste of time and money
Luz and her BF, Ray live in a not-all-that-unbelievable near future in California, where water is all but nonexistent. One day, they come upon a child, and in a moment of quick decisive action, take her for their own. Suddenly, what was once felt as “good enough” for the two of them, no longer is. Watkins is a spectacular writer, and constructs beautiful sentences full of imagery and lyricism you can’t even wrap your head around. But… that’s about it. The characters displayed very little growth throughout the duration of the novel, and the plot was way too ambitious. A bit of “everything but the kitchen sink” syndrome that didn’t gel with me. I could see what Watkins was trying to accomplish – inclusion of targeted commentary on the environment and associated politics – however it was buried in the weird, nonsensical turns of the story as well as random inclusions of pure “shock value” moments that served no purpose other than simply that, as far as I could tell. *But*… you knew there was a “but”… the ending was pretty darn great. It was simple, perfectly vague, and was wielded with a lighter hand I wish Watkins would have employed throughout the rest of the novel. All in all, not a bad read by any means, and though the ending was a satisfactory one, I’m not sure I can say it made up for what was lacking in the majority of the proceeding novel. For more, visit http://www.bookishtendencies.com
I struggled with my rating of Claire Vaye Watkins's Gold Fame Citrus. I was bored for the first third of the book (Book One, 111 pages recounting the story of Luz, Ray, and Ig before they encounter the colony in the Dune Sea), and I know many, if not, most readers would have cut their losses long before they reached Book Two. However, Gold Fame Citrus came highly recommended by Book Riot, which described it as "a dystopian masterpiece"; it was selected for the 2016 Tournament of Books Long List; and Watkins's essay "On Pandering" was generating a lot of literary buzz, so I persevered. Was it worth it? I don't know. A masterpiece it is not, and it didn't really pay off for me until page 323 (out of 339) when Watkins departed from her conventional storytelling in a tantalizing way which I will not describe further for fear of spoiling it. It did, however, give me probably the best closing sentence I read all year, and, as all good trial lawyers know, juries give disproportionate weight to the last thing they hear (the "recency effect"). I don't consider the time I spent reading Gold Fame Citrus wasted, particularly if it gave me a leg up on the Tournament of Books Short List, but I wouldn't go out of my way to recommend it, either. I received a free copy of Gold Fame Citrus through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Starts withan interesting idea then eventually becomes an unfocused mess.