I’m pretty sure this will be one of the first of many glowing reviews for Claire Vaye Watkins’ collection of short stories, Battleborn—mainly because the book isn’t going to be in stores in the United States until August. My bad; I didn’t notice the release date until I’d invested too much into the book, in both time and emotion, to put it back on the shelf.
Watkins is a Nevada writer worthy of note. Her first book is a shopping bag full of delicious, nutritious morsels. To say she’s new isn’t exactly correct—I guess young would be the better word—she’s been published in more literary publications than I’ll name, including the Paris Review, which by itself would make her a top-tier Nevada writer from the last 20 years or so. That story, “The Gold Mine,” is available for purchase here: www.theparisreview.org/fiction/6061/gold-mine-claire-vaye-watkins or you can read a few paragraphs for free to get the flavor of her. “The Gold Mine” contains at least part of the story, “The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past,” which appears in Battleborn.
Watkins was born in Death Valley but grew up in Pahrump, which infuses her work with an authentic Silver State spice. She’s an assistant professor of English at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Penn. The Nevada Review did a good Q&A with her last year, so if you want to read more about Watkins, the human person, check out http://www.thenevadareview.com/ten-questions-with-claire-vaye-watkins. I’ll also just mention that she has a familial connection to Charles Manson’s group of killers. (I mention it more because other people seem interested, although this kind of thing must put some kind of a permanent mark on your psychic record.)
The problem with reviewing collections of short stories is that often they’re a collection of peaks and flat spots. I didn’t find that at all true with Battleborn. I had my favorites, “Man-o-war” and “Wish You Were Here,” but there weren’t any that struck me as unworthy of inclusion. In fact, the one I probably liked least was “The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past,” and I’ll give you my personal guarantee that the editors at the Paris Review know more about the art and craft of short stories than I ever will.
Watkins does a couple of things very well. I love the way she’s able to make the setting such an integral part of her characters, the characters an aspect of setting, symbiotic—or maybe the happy parts of co-dependent. She’s also able to ferret out those emotional lynchpins that most of us have experienced. I’ll give you an example: In “Wish You Were Here,” the story ends with the heroine, who has gone to bed a little intoxicated, digging frantically in the bed for her 11-week-old baby, afraid she has smothered him in her sleep. And this is just a detail of the everyday horror in which she lives, a participant in a disintegrating life and relationship.
Who hasn’t breathed the off-gassing of a poisoned relationship? Who hasn’t drunkenly taken the baby to bed and spent the night dreaming of infanticide?
I’ve been there. I’ve also been on the outlying portions of the Black Rock Desert. I even know a story about a body found there. I’ve been to the Cherry Patch Ranch. As I recall, it’s the closest business to Yucca Mountain. I’ve always found the proximity of the brothel and the nuclear suppository amusing—like the area was zoned for that.
What I haven’t done is ask Watkins where her stories come from. I gather she starts with the setting, then adds the characters and plotting like layers in Photoshop, but where do the stories come from, and how does she make them seem so true?
At any rate, come August, you’ll want to pick up a copy of Battleborn. I’m almost certain Watkins is going to have to do a reading at Sundance if she ever wants to come back to Reno.