Excerpt from Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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by Claire Vaye Watkins

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  • First Published:
    Aug 2012, 304 pages
    Aug 2013, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl

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Print Excerpt

A casino can make an average 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 on the screen, 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. As if your life wasn’t a life but an old nostalgic movie. Duel in the Sun, perhaps. You don’t want to know what a casino can do to a man already lovely.

It wasn’t long before we were turned facing each other, and my right leg, dangling off my stool, found its way between his legs, nestled into his groin. We finished off the sweetbreads with our hands, sopping the small sinewy pieces of young lamb glands in onion sauce.

He asked about my father. I wanted to tell him what I told you, but that’s nothing that can’t be found in a book, a diary, a newspaper, a coroner’s report. And there is still so much I’ll never know, no matter how much history I weigh upon myself. I can tell you the shape of the stain left by H. T. P. Comstock’s brain matter on the wooden walls of his cabin, but not whether he tasted the sour of the curse in his mouth just before he pulled the trigger. I can tell you the backward slant of Himmel Green’s left-handed cursive, but not whether Leo loved him back. I can tell you of the silver gleam of Helen Spahn’s tumors, but not whether she felt them growing inside her. I can tell you of the view from George’s front porch, of the wide yellow valley below, but not what he saw after he went blind. I can tell you the things my father said to lure the Manson girls back to Spahn’s Ranch, but I can’t say whether he believed them. I can tell you the length and width and number of the cuts on my mother’s wrists, and the colors her skin turned as they healed, but I couldn’t say whether she would do it again, or when. Everything I can say about what it means to lose, what it means to do without, the inadequate weight of the past, you already know.

But the whiskey in our coffees was doing its job. I was feeling loose. So I told him what I could. I told him of the heavy earth scent after a desert rain, three or four times a year. That it smelled like the breathing of every thankful desert plant, every plot of soil, every unfound scrap of silver. That it had a way of softening you, of making you vulnerable. That it could redeem.

After dinner we watched Razor Blade Baby until she killed off her last life. Andrew walked us out to our bikes and helped us unchain them. He kissed me then, or rather we kissed each other, right in front of Razor Blade Baby. It was an inevitable kiss. A kiss like I had caught the hem of my skirt on the seat of my bike while trying to mount it, and toppled. A kiss like we had fallen into each other, which I suppose we had.

Afterward, Razor Blade Baby and I rode home to 315 Lake, headlights lighting us from behind. When I closed my front door, my cell phone rang.

“Come outside.” It was Andrew, his voice breathy, sweetly slurred.


My doorbell buzzed. I pulled the curtain of my living room window aside, saw him swaying slightly on the porch, glowing phone pressed to his ear.

“Or come and live with me,” he said.

“You’re drunk,” I said.

“So are you. Let me in. We’ll move to L. A., down by the ocean. You can ride your bike up and down the coast. Or forget L. A., we can live here, in the mountains. In the desert. Whatever this is. That thing you said about the rain. You and me, Claire. Just let me in.”

And I wanted to let him in. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to. I was swaying now and reached for the wall to steady myself, trying to stop the swirl of Picon in my head, my chest. Tried not to think of the words written there under the paint. When you go, all that matters is who’s there with you. Believe me. I rested my head against the front door and wanted badly to open it. But the story was too much, wherever I began: the borrowed revolver on the floor of a cabin near Bozeman, Montana. The sweet sizzle of Himmel Green’s skin as it melted into Leopold’s. Helen Spahn’s withering uprooted tendrils. Bottles’s dry bleached bones. My parents’ own toxic and silver-gilded love. Razor Blade Baby, the simple fact of her.

Excerpted from Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins. Copyright © 2012 by Claire Vaye Watkins. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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