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It starts with a mistake; most stories do. Ex-model Luz and her ex-military boyfriend, Ray, are squatting in a dusty mansion in what used to be Laurel Canyon but is now, after a California drought of apocalyptic proportions, only “some ruined heaven.” Luz has been famous since birth as Baby Dunn, “conservation’s golden child,” the innocent whose age measures the number of years gone by without swimming pools and avocados. She’s busy trying on the clothes the mansion’s owner left behind when a prairie dog surprises her on the stairs and, unthinking, she kicks the rodent into the library. Her alarm at this wiggling sign of life brings to mind Beckett’s Hamm, who despaired at the sight of a flea: “But humanity might start from there all over again! Catch him, for the love of God!”

Ray puts the creature out of its misery, but it’s not that easy to prevent humanity from starting again. Down at the rain dance, the get-together of freaks who have refused to board the buses east, Luz and Ray spy a child toddling after a band of cretins and molesters; horrified, they steal her. Now they’re a family, and it’s time to leave town. They point their classic Karmann Ghia in the direction of the encroaching Amargosa sand dune in search of what, they have heard, is a colony. The car is green, the ground is brown. “Amargosa,” from amargo: “bitter.”

Griffith Park #2, by Samantha Fields. Courtesy the artist; Traywick Contemporary, Berkeley, California

Griffith Park #2, by Samantha Fields. Courtesy the artist; Traywick Contemporary, Berkeley, California

Gold Fame Citrus (Riverhead, $27.95), Claire Vaye Watkins’s excellent new novel, follows Luz, Ray, and the baby they name Estrella from ecological waste into psychic quicksand. You will have noticed that their names are variations on a theme: identity is shifty like that in this book. Thirst has made life brittle. Yucca trees hollowed by the sun can be knocked over with a single swipe. The sand sea (“a vast tooth-colored superdune in the forgotten crook of the wasted West”) doesn’t cover things up, exactly; it crushes them, like a glacier or a rock. Watkins’s narrative voice is mythic and speculative, its sediment forming and re-forming in lists, treatises, reports. The writing, with its tough sentimentality, is reminiscent of Denis Johnson’s, but Watkins has a style of mordant observation all her own. “He was doing penance for the AWOL thing,” Luz thinks when they run out of gas and Ray, ever the deserter, says goodbye. “He was going to leave her alone to watch their child die, to prove what a good man he was.” Luz and the baby fall in with the colony, which is led by an expert dowser and spiritual creep named Levi, the author of a field guide to the Amargosa’s unusual flora and fauna. Levi bestows special favor on Luz. She has visions.

How did all of this happen? Or, to quote Mad Max: Fury Road — Who destroyed the world?

Who had latticed the Southwest with a network of aqueducts? . . . Who had diverted the coast’s rainwater and sapped the Great Basin of its groundwater? . . . 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.

Watkins knows that bureaucracy is another name for destiny, but Gold Fame Citrus is not a political thriller. Luz carries a copy of John Muir everywhere she goes, and the spirit of the Romantic sublime — of human incapacity and omnipotent terrain — is on every page. The Amargosa works like the death drive, exerting a magnetic pull on certain people, who feel themselves called to the desert — summoned, they say. It also works like God, rejecting the unfit from its dry paradise, expatriating them to civilization. “These decisions had been made before this discussion,” Luz thinks near the end of the novel, “before the prairie dog crossed their threshold.” We find out who Levi really is, but not all forces of nature are demystified: not the sea, where Luz’s mother drowned years ago; not erotic attraction, which Luz compares to telepathy (“the wild luck of two people feeling the exact same thing at the exact same time”); not the stirrings of maternal feeling for little Estrella.

Black-tailed prairie dogs, 1853 © The Granger Collection, New York City

Black-tailed prairie dogs, 1853 © The Granger Collection, New York City

Is Luz a good mother? She tries. But we inherit the world our progenitors made, just as we inherit their ways of making it. “You spend your life thinking you’re an original,” Luz says. “Then one day you realize you’ve been acting just like your parents.” That this statement can plausibly endure when water has turned to salt is both terrifying and strangely soothing. I suppose it all depends on who your parents are. Watkins’s father is a former member of the Manson Family.

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