‘Battleborn,” the absorbing debut story collection from Nevada native Claire Vaye Watkins, is mined from the vein of regional realism. In clean, sturdy prose, Watkins renders an American West of nuclear ash and dust and hot winds, ominous hills filled with coyotes and grizzlies and towns illuminated by “streetlights the color of antibacterial soap,” bathing her characters in a similarly stringent light. But its true setting is a Faulknerian desert of the heart, where the soil is cursed by its precious metals and one’s personal history can be just as toxic.
The essayistic opener “Cowboys, Ghosts” is the collection’s only piece to deal overtly with Watkins’s own back story. As a young man, her father, Paul, who died in 1990, fell in with Charles Manson, playing a significant role in staffing the Manson family, though he left before the murders. “[M]y mother . . . called my father ‘Charlie’s number one procurer of young girls,’ Watkins writes. “I couldn’t tell whether she was ashamed or proud of him.”
Many of the characters here suffer not so much from the need to get a moral fix on others as on themselves. Alongside the desolate road of “The Last Thing We Need,” a man happens upon a stranger’s bag of photographs that lead him back to the summer he first picked up a gun. In “The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past,” a young Italian on holiday abandons his friend alone in the sandy nothingness outside Vegas and awaits the inevitable bad news of his fate at a brothel where he falls for a canny prostitute. The protagonist of “Rondine al Nido” enables the sexual assault of her best friend. In both “The Archivist” and “Graceland,” two different sets of sisters struggle their way into adulthood in the aftermath of a parent’s death.
Such unlucky pairs reappear throughout the book. In the longest and strongest story, “Diggings,” the year is 1849 and young Joshua Boyle is cajoled into following his older brother, Errol, overland from Ohio to the California Gold Rush, only to watch helplessly as Errol finds no gold but loses his sanity to its pursuit. “A promise unkept will take a man’s mind,” he realizes. “It does not matter whether the promise is made by a woman or a territory or a future foretold.”
Catie, the narrator of “Graceland,” another of the book’s standouts, is struggling to contain a terrifying grief. Six months before the story begins, her mother commits suicide, and the pain has splintered her from her sister Gwen, who is newly married and several months pregnant. Gwen has been urging her to find comfort in the natural world, but Catie has lost her faith that the world is anything but dangerously inhospitable. “If you were the Stork and you were delivering little baby Dumbo and you had to maneuver his bundle between iron bars to lower him down to his mother,” she thinks, “wouldn’t you think twice about delivering him in the first place?”
When hope and redemption enter these stories, they do so gingerly, with the tenuousness that comes from contemplating the frail beauty of a sleeping child. Clear-eyed and nimble in parsing the lives of her Westerners, one of Watkins’s strengths is not dodging that the simple fact that love can be tragic, involving, as it does, humans so flawed, so often tender and yet incapable. “Sometimes a person wants a part of you that’s no good,” says the middle-aged father of “The Last Thing We Need.” “Sometimes love is a wound that opens and closes, opens and closes, all our lives.”