GOLD FAME CITRUS, by Claire Vaye Watkins. Riverhead, 342 pp., $27.95
Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" may not be the best novel of the past decade, but since its publication in 2006, scores of post-apocalyptic writers have helped make it the most influential. Barren landscapes, struggling families, bleached prose flecked with religious imagery -- for today's serious novelist there seems to be no richer soil than the dying earth. A literature professor can now fill a semester with works of the past few years alone -- Colson Whitehead's "Zone One," Chang-rae Lee's "On Such a Full Sea," Emily St. John Mandel's "Station Eleven," Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy, and on and on.
Add to the list Claire Vaye Watkins' sharp and provocative debut novel, "Gold Fame Citrus," whose rough outline hews to disaster-lit form. In the nearish future the western United States has become a "dune sea" that's collapsing under climate change. Soldiers fight an undefined "forever war" overseas and TV is filled with gaudy, death-themed reality shows like "Enbalming with the Stars." Luz, the novel's hero, is a former California model who was literally adopted at birth by the state conservation bureau to personify the water crisis and help society reverse course. Mission not accomplished: "all of the Southwest went moonscape with sinkage" anyway.
Water metaphors abound in the novel, as if the heat vaporized all other figurative language: Luz puts "her face in the basin of her hands"; she feels "a great reservoir of joy drain from her"; a conversation is "an aquifer of understanding." The parched language underscores Luz's own crisis. She and her boyfriend, forever war vet Ray, are caring for an abandoned toddler, Ig, and plan to head east for a more stable life. But their car runs out of gas, Ray disappears after seeking help, and Luz and Ig are near death when they're rescued by a nomadic band led by Levi, who in this newly sandy and lawless land has become a messianic figure.
Watkins is a magnificent writer about the ways the west offers freedom and oppression in equal measure: Her debut story collection, 2013's "Battleborn," was rich with tragic outsiders, from gold prospectors to Charles Manson acolytes. The best parts of "Gold Fame Citrus" explore how the apocalypse has cranked up the spiritual absurdity: Luz, who's sensitive to omens and portents, is seduced both by Levi's spiritual talk and his disarming bestiary of the funhouse-mirror creatures that have sprung up in the dune sea: a "jelly scorpion," an "ouroboros rattler," a "stiltwalker tortoise." She hardly flinches when Levi imagines Luz and Ig at the holy center of the desert cult's survival: "We need you both, and we need it to be big and wholesome and beautiful. Transcendent. Madonna and child. . . . Ig is our baby Moses."
Watkins wants to push at the question of how much spirituality is a function of landscape: Do we imagine gods and newly evolved creatures to fill in the gaps created by a barren territory and bleak future? Wallace Stegner and John Steinbeck explored the spiritual elements of the west in more conventional ways, so Watkins' looser, Burning Man-ish take is welcome and engrossing. But "Gold Fame Citrus" ultimately narrows its scope, its brainy apocalyptic adventure story fading into a conventional tale about Luz's conflicted romantic affections.
That shortcoming, coming after such admirable overreach, suggests that Watkins has bigger stories yet to tell. Early on, Ray explains the novel's title as the three things that attracted migrants to California. Those were, he says, a "mirage." But for Watkins, the state is fertile territory for people imagining brighter futures -- its wild mix of religious radicals and hopeful migrants define the land as much as sunshine and drought.