In a modern depiction of the western frontier, the short story collection “Battleborn” reveals the Wild West in all its beauty and dysfunction, the human spirit battling itself and others across the landscapes of Nevada and California. From Reno to the Black Rock Desert, from Vegas to Virginia City, and from the gold country to San Francisco, Claire Vaye Watkins introduces a variety of narrators — a girlfriend, a lover, a sister, a brother — all tumbling along in life, much like the uprooted tumbleweeds blowing across the desert floor.
Watkins, born in Bishop, Calif. and raised in the Mojave Desert, first in Tecopa, Calif. and then across the state line in Pahrump, Nev., is a force to be reckoned with. Her strength manifests in her ability to bring subterranean subjects into the light with finesse and ease, her words cleverly written in a haunting way that is so quiet you don’t realize the impact until you’re pages ahead, the language swiftly carrying you along. The book jacket notes Watkins’ voice as “gritty and human to the sweeping and sublime,” to which I’d add “melancholy and reflective.” While adjectives abound for this local writer, another way to describe Watkins’ writing is to simply say, she mesmerizes.
For example, Watkins begins the story “The Archivist” by describing the narrator’s heartbreak: “There was no salve for the space he left. If there had been — if science had developed an ointment for heartache or a pill for the lovelorn — I wouldn’t have used it. I wanted pain. I wanted cataclysmic anguish. For that, our old ritual.” The ritual involves a hot bath, cabernet, a book, cigarettes, a joint, and peanut butter cups. The anguish she feels and the palpable yearning to be reunited with her lover is expressed in that true grit that is Watkins’ signature.
True to the Wild West, there’s a brothel and casinos, desert scenes, and cities gone rogue. There are ladies of the night, the pioneer-era dream of the gold rush, and a daughter who mourns the loss of her mother. There are sassy women with sassy men, a father connected to Charles Manson, and the story that sticks most in my mind, “Man-O-War,” about a hermit who picks up a girl passed out in the desert, brings her home, and befriends her. While short story collections can often be a hard sell, this one is well worth the time; the hardened landscape and just as hardened characters will stick with you long after the windblown Nevada dust settles, long after the words tumble off the page.
Battleborn has won numerous prestigious awards, including being named one of the Best Books of 2012 by the San Francisco Chronicle and a Silver Pen award from the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame. To see the book’s other accolades and more on Watkins’ biography, check out clairevayewatkins.com.
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