Sun-scorched. Desolate. Solitary. These are just a few of the words I’d use to describe Claire Vaye Watkins’s quietly haunting debut short story collection. Unlike most story collections out there, there’s no story called “Battleborn” in this book. Instead, the book’s title captures the essence of this collection. Not yet 30 (a fact that completely blows my mind), Watkins reimagines about histories and mythologies of the American West — including her own family’s unique place in it — with the steady assuredness an old soul.
Nothing illustrates this more perfectly than the book’s opener, “Ghosts, Cowboys.” It begins with a series of false starts, opening with tidbits from different points in history until finally finding an entrance point with the story of a group of ten people led by a guy named “Charlie” Manson. Manson’s right hand man was Watkins’s father, and though he never killed anyone, his job was to lure girls for Manson to have sex with. Imagine that being part of your family’s lore! “Ghosts, Cowboys” is a reimagining of events, and Watkins inserts herself into the story.
The other stories, many tinged with a sense of loss, are no less captivating. I had several favorites. “The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past” is about a European tourist stuck in Nevada. His friend is lost in the desert, and he must wait here while the search for him continues. He finds himself at a brothel in the desert and keeps returning to one of the women who works there. In “Man-O-War,” a loner comes across a teen girl passed out in the desert. He takes her home and looks after her until she wakes up, and when she does, she doesn’t want to leave; it isn’t until the story’s climax that he learns what she’s run away from. And finally, my favorite story in the collection was the longest one, “The Diggings,” in which two brothers leave Ohio for the Gold Rush.
Watkins’s prose is consistently gorgeous. Here’s an excerpt from “Rondine Al Nido,” about a woman confiding a story from her past to her lover:
He will talk, and she will listen. It will be as though she’s finally found someone else willing to see the worst in the world. Someone who can’t help but see it. For the first time in her life, she will feel understood. When he finished one story she’ll ask for another, then another, wanting to stack them like bricks, build walls of sorrow around the two of them, seal them up together. An uncontrollable feeling — like falling — will be growing in her: they could build a love this way.
Battleborn is intimate and fierce; Watkins’s gaze at the American West is unflinching. I will read anything else she writes in the future, no questions asked.
Battleborn: Stories was originally released in August 2012. It was released on paperback on August 6, 2013 by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin. The book has won numerous awards and was shortlisted for the 2013 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize.