Reading Battleborn, by Claire Vaye Watkins, is a pleasure for the way her stories coolly observe what one character calls “the love of destruction” in the human heart. We see this hunger for destruction as early as the epigraph, along with the disturbing satisfaction that suffering can bring. The writing here is gritty, fine and distinctly individual. This is, of course, why you should read the book. That said, there’s an almost irresistible sensationalism around the author’s origins; her father was Charles Manson’s “number one procurer of young girls” (though, as she tells us, he didn’t kill anyone). Watkins gets this information out of the way in the first story, less as a revelation than as one fact among many in a strong opening that places the book firmly in the West. It’s gratifying to get to read a Nevadan writing about rural Nevada in such a deeply felt way, though that, too, might be beside the point.
Watkins’ main characters — often women — are trying to figure out what feels right, and it’s a tall order for those who are numb, or, worse, who only crave things for their wrongness. There is a persistent feeling of underlying masochism throughout. At the same time, her stories are also smoothly, elegantly elegiac, with characters mourning parts of themselves as well as loved ones who are dead, lost, deeply injured. Sometimes, the mixture of masochism and mourning reveals moments of breathtaking cruelty. In “Rondine al Nido,” a woman tells the man she is falling in love with about the night she and her best friend in high school drove to Las Vegas from their rural Nevada hometown. They find the Strip, park at New York-New York and begin their adventure:
Our girl ignores the directional signs, which point down circuitous routes pitted with pocket bars and sports books. Once, Lena touches her lightly, thinking they’ve lost their way. Our girl says, Trust me, and Lena does.
Outside there is a breeze threading through the warm night and a jubilant honking of cars and all those billions of bulbs flashing in time, signaling to the girls that they are, at long last, alive.
The girls find the distraction they seek in the form of four college boys from out of state. The boys have a hotel room. The best friend is drunk and sick and wants to go home, but the narrator, for some reason, won’t allow it. You already know what will happen, as does the man listening. But just as disturbing as that knowledge is the eerie lack of affect in the narrator. More layers of horrified pity settle into place with the recognition that the best friend had been a virgin, that the boy she loved had broken off their relationship that morning for a girl willing to have sex with him, and that in her grief she wished she’d slept with him to keep him. That the narrator doesn’t make the small move she knows will stop the sexual violation that night is unforgivably cruel; this becomes the real violation at the center of the story. This strangely aggressive, masochistic refusal to be good appears again and again.
In “The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past,” two Italian boys on vacation hike out to see the pupfish. One disappears in the desert. The other is left alone, waiting for news, waiting for his friend to be found, alive or dead. The police give him a phone card and ask him to tell the missing boy’s parents, at home in Italy, that their son is missing; they are sorry to ask this of him, but no one on their staff can speak Italian. They ask him to advise the parents to fly to the U.S. They leave him a private room to make the call. But he doesn’t call. He just … doesn’t. Elsewhere, others also take the path of least resistance, even when they must know better: A boy lies to the brother who unquestioningly believes in him; a father punishes his child for being too innocent; a young woman makes the same mistake twice, revealing that her inner damage is a treasure she wants to preserve. Men wait in place for letters that won’t arrive. Young mothers can’t or won’t bond with their children, though of course they know they should. People make mistakes, and are aware even as they make them. They collect and tend their wounds instead of avoiding being hurt in the first place. As one says, “If science had developed an ointment for heartache or a pill for the lovelorn — I wouldn’t have used it. I wanted cataclysmic anguish. For that, our old ritual.”
Watkins takes risks, and when they pay off, the effects are amazing — the first story, “Cowboys, Ghosts,” is a confident, strange, discursive piece that is as much about the landscape and recent history of the West as about the main character, whose name is Claire and whose family history is that of the author’s. There are a hundred writer’s handbook rules being broken here, and it’s marvelous. In some of the later stories, where my patience with the characters and their youthful frailties and self-indulgences wavered, it wasn’t exactly because anything was amiss. In “Virginia City,” the narrator’s beautiful college friend is one of those exuberant, exciting, damaging people best left behind, even if regretfully, because she’s a narcissist who needs attention but can’t love or value anyone in return. I could feel my own experiences color my reading, making me impatient with the narrator for allowing her friend’s heartless, fickle behavior. And then I realized, that probably is the story. My impatience and disgust is what that narrator herself is trying to stave off, for a moment longer, because she knows that the young, careless, heartless phase of their lives is already over.
This is a strong collection by a writer with a starkly appraising eye for human motivation, a tough frontier sensibility, and a mesmerizing ability to describe the desert and those who live here. Battleborn feels like a debut in the most exciting sense of the word: I can’t wait to see what Watkins writes next.
BATTLEBORN, Claire Vaye Watkins, Riverhead, 304 pages
Maile Chapman is the author of the novel, Your Preence Is Requested at Suvanto.
Disclosure: The story “Virginia City” appeared in CityLife a year ago.