The people of Nevada appear to be as hard as the state’s desert landscape in Claire Vaye Watkins’ “Battleborn.”
Watkins’ debut collection consists of 10 short stories tied together mostly by pain and suffering. Each story spans a different time period, from the seemingly present to the 1849 Gold Rush and depicts a different set of characters with different woes.
Watkins was raised in Pahrump, Nevada and her personal story, “Ghosts, Cowboys,” is the first in the collection. The story starts with the historical beginnings of Reno, Nevada, when prospectors came “ten-year-old gold glinting in their eyes,” and everyone was looking for something. Watkins’ father, Paul Watkins, came to a ranch outside Reno with Charles Manson in 1968. He gathered young women from local high schools and brought them back to the Manson family ranch. While Watkins barely knew her father, his potential daughter born on the ranch, and Watkins potential half-sister, create one of the most fascinating stories of the collection.
While the narrative of her father and Charles Manson is certainly autobiographical, the line between reality and fiction is often blurred. The fiction and non-fiction tales flow together easily, but it is curious as to why Watkins included her truth in a set of imagined stories.
There are several outstanding narratives in “Battleborn.” “Rondine Al Nido” is about a young woman retelling an adolescent trauma to a new lover. Like all good literary fiction, Watkins asks questions of universal truth, such as “Who can say why we offer the parts of ourselves we do, and when?”
“Man-O-War” tells the story of an older man becoming vulnerable in his independence after discovering a teenage girl abandoned on a beach. “The Archivist,” which is probably the most engaging and entertaining narrative of the bunch, portrays a young woman recently broken up with by a man she knew would always hurt her. The woman, Nat, has an art degree, loves her niece “more than a person ought to love one thing” and painstakingly recreates the most heartbreaking moments of her life as exhibits in an art museum.
The weakest, or perhaps most out-of-place story, “The Diggings,” tells of the gold rush in 1849 and reads more like historical fiction than the rest of the book.
Watkins exceptionally creates a vivid sense of place in all of her stories, whether she is describing a brothel/peacock ranch outside of town, the rugged bachelor pad of a sixty-something year old man or the hectic, “teenage sense” of Las Vegas through the eyes of two young girls yearning to feel desired.
Every story has the sad tinge of if-onlys. If only she hadn’t left me, if only I hadn’t broken his heart, if only my father hadn’t sexually abused me, things might have turned out differently. Watkins touches on these traumas with subtlety, making it easier to swallow so many bitter pills.
“Battleborn” won the 2012 Story Prize, the most significant award for short fiction in the United States, beating out former Pulitzer Prize-winner Junot Diaz and author Dan Chaon. It is unlikely, however, that the 28-year-old writer will win the Pulitzer for her first collection of short stories. While “Visit from the Goon Squad” could arguably be called a collection of connected short stories, Watkins does not show the maturity or connectivity Jennifer Egan won the 2011 Pulitzer for.
“Battleborn” is a portrait of the American West, both the physical landscape and the heartbreaking journeys of those who have battled to stay alive.