Most of the stories in Claire Vaye Watkins's debut story collection, Battleborn, take place in the arid setting of Nevada. Both the cities and the desert are equally, if differently, inhospitable to the lonely, often damaged people who populate the pages of her stories. "From where the house was perched, high up on the alluvial fan, the valley below 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 the Black Rock
Something was different in the distance. A small white cloud of dust billowed on the horizon. It grew. At its eyes was a speck. A truck."
In this desolate environment, people can see trouble, like that pickup truck, coming from miles away. And trouble seems to find them, whether in the form of overt threats or suppressed bad memories and ancient demons. In the autobiographical opening story, "Ghosts, Cowboys," the narrator attempts to overcome her family's horrific connections, but discovers that it's as hard for her to escape her origins, as it is for the land where she lives to overcome its own tortured history. In "Rondine al Nido," a woman, prompted by a lover to recall something terrible from her past, relates a truly awful story about an unforgivable betrayal she perpetuated on a fellow teenager in her youth. And in "The Archivist," another woman, reeling from the end of a damaged and damaging relationship, bonds with her sister over their shared dread of becoming mothers as bad as their own.
Although a geographic setting and a somewhat elegiac mood loosely tie many of these stories together, their characters, plots, time periods and themes are remarkably varied. Watkins, despite being a young woman and a debut author, does not limit herself to young or female characters in her fiction. Sure, in "Wish You Were Here," a young woman realizes, perhaps too late, that her husband's vision for their life does not match her own. But in "Man-O-War," an old rancher wonders whether his protective feelings toward a young pregnant runaway is prompted by a fatherly impulse or something less noble. While in "The Diggings," two brothers narrowly escape joining the Donner Party only to discover less immediate but perhaps equally harrowing dangers as they are swept up in the nineteenth-century gold rush.
Throughout the collection, the stories and their characters convey feelings of loss and regret, for what has - or hasn't - happened to them and to the place where they live, whether globally or more locally. "All the great land mammals are dying," one narrator reports. "There were once birds the size of sheep. Pinnipeds* used to be huge; walruses had tusks six feet long. Jackrabbits had feet like two-by-fours. Armadillos were as big as minivans. Now, they are all dying off." This fear - of smallness, of loss even to the point of extinction - pervades nearly all of the stories. Some are almost painful in their bitterness and brutal in their sparseness. But there's a bleak beauty here too, both in the landscapes Watkins portrays and in the restrained prose she uses to bring this stark place to life for the reader.
*For those who are a little rusty on their scientific classifications - pinnipeds are fin footed mammals including walruses, seals and sea lions (Latin pinna meaning wing or fin, and ped - foot).
This review was originally published in September 2012, and has been updated for the August 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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