- Claire Vaye Watkins
- Riverhead Books
- 304 pp.
- Reviewed by Rimas Blekaitis
- September 28, 2012
In fierce and spare language, the stories in this debut collection capture the hunger of the human heart amid the searing landscape of the American Southwest.
Reviewed by Rimas Blekaitis
Battleborn is the debut short story collection of the talented young writer Claire Vaye Watkins. The title refers both to the motto of the writer’s home state of Nevada, where most of the stories are set, and to the collection’s theme of origins. As Watkins writes in the first paragraph of the first story, “At the end, I can’t stop thinking about beginnings.”
Maybe she can’t because of her own origins: Her father was Paul Watkins, a man who at one time was the “number two in charge” of the Charles Manson cult. Fortunately for her father, he was not part of the murder spree; Claire herself was born 15 years afterward. (You can read a nonfiction piece on her experience here.)
Watkins directly addresses those origins in her first story, the apparently autobiographical “Ghosts, Cowboys,” a story for which she offers four beginnings: one for the beginnings of Reno as a bridge over the Truckee River; one for the atomic test that was her mother’s earliest memory; one for the building of the house that became her home; and finally, one for the moment that Charles Manson’s gang showed up at the ranch of a nearly blind man. The protagonist, also named Claire, is dogged by the off-kilter Razor-blade Baby, part-friend, part-burden, and possibly sister, who takes her name from a gruesome caesarian operation Charles Manson himself performed to free a child from an unyielding womb. Near the end, Claire encounters a handsome stranger who may take her from Nevada and Razor-blade baby:
A casino can make a man lovely. The lights are dim, the ceiling low and mirrored. The machines light his face from below in a soft, sweet blue. As they turn to reveal themselves, the electric playing cards reflect in his eyes as quick glints of light. The dense curtain of cigarette smoke filters the place fuzzy, as if what the two of you do there isn’t actually happening. As if it were already in the past ... You don’t want to know what a casino can do to a man already lovely.But when it’s time for Claire to come away to his glamorous life in LA, she says, as if speaking to all the deceptions of allure, “Good night, Andy. ... Please don’t call me again.” No razor blade can free Claire.
Watkins is at her best in evoking the harsh aridity of the American Southwest. In “Man-o-War,” a lonely retiree, long abandoned by his wife after their young child’s death, discovers a pregnant girl lying unconscious in a hard-pan basin that in ancient times was a sea. After nursing her back to health, the old man begins to hope that he might help raise the girl’s baby. Then the man realizes that the girl’s abusive father has come to reclaim her, and here the landscape is as vivid as the situation:
... instead of going inside, he scanned the lake bed, as he had every day since she came to him. For where the house was perched, high up on the alluvial fan, the valley seemed to unfurl and flatten like a starched white sheet. The sun was rising, illuminating the peaks of the Last Chance Range to the west, starting its long trip across Black Rock. He stopped. Something was different in the distance. A small white cloud of dust billowed on the horizon. It grew. At its eye was a speck. A truck.“The Past Perfect, the Past Continuous, the Simple Past” makes the most of its unusual setting, a brothel. The story begins with two prostitutes reading about a foreign tourist lost in the desert near Reno. The next day, that tourist’s young hiking companion turns up. At the Cherry Patch, sex is on the menu: “The Straight Lay. Chair Party. Reversed Half-and-Half,” but the young hiker, an Italian man named Michele, is not interested. Is he there to get help? Does he just want to sit and drink and talk? In a week’s worth of such visits, he falls for Darla, whose niche in the business is “fidgeting with her garters ... looking innocent and eager at the same time.” He dreams he will take her back home with him and that there they will find the missing friend, miraculously alive. The brothel’s manager, however, has other ideas. The story’s images — the lost friend, the stars Michele imagines his friend must see as he lies dying in the desert, the prostitutes lining up to be selected by johns, the peacocks and the gay brothel manager who loves them, and even Darla’s silver glitter eye shadow, another echo of the stars — are tightly woven together as the story nears its climax. In the end, these images continue their work even as the reader grapples with the story’s inscrutable ending.
Watkins makes these stories seem not so much crafted as discovered, like accidentally talismanic arrangements of wildflowers found on a stroll through a desolate wilderness. Her characters and vivid images spring up, alive, in these landscapes, and they defy attempts to reduce them to their plots — what, after all, is the plot of that meadow? It is remarkable that her origins do not overwhelm her stories.
For my part, it leaves me glad of those origins: If this is what it took to produce writing so deeply attuned to its characters, the literary world should be scouring the cults for more like her.
Rimas Blekaitis recently completed his M.F.A. in fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he writes fiction and poetry.