BATTLEBORN by Claire Vaye Watkins (is my Girlfriend)Posted: August 7, 2012
WHAT THE BOOK IS ABOUT: I take people saying “You HAVE to read this novel, it is the BEST in the WORLD EVER,” with a grain of salt. Make that a few grains of salt. Make that a couple hundred kilometers of the salt flats of Chile and Bolivia. Everyone thinks almost every novel is the best novel ever. In order to read everyone’s best book ever, you need to be like that guy midway through that Twilight Zone who survives an apocalyptic bombing in a bank vault and then gets to go to the library to read for the rest of his life without anyone bothering him.
That said, when people rave that hard about a collection of short stories it’s a horse of a slightly different color. It’s been my experience that people tend to treat short story collections with a more I’m-a-senior-in-AP-English-and-I-have-to-find-every-symbol-and-motif-in-every-story kind of stop-frowning-your-face-might-freeze-this-way seriousness. So when people starts talking rapidly and gesticulating wildly about a collection of short stories (or using all caps and multiple exclamation marks on Twitter) there tends to be something to actually get excited about.
Claire Vaye Watkins’ BATTLEBORN has been getting that kind of love (from esteemed colleagues/friends like DeadWhiteGuys and MissLiberty, no less) and I am so excited to be jumping on the wagon. I super-enjoyed this collection of short stories, which explore the glory, wonder, and fucked-up-ed-ness of the American West, in particular California and Nevada, in particular-particular Nevada. Watkins sets her stories across space and time, starting with a semi-autobiographical account of her father, a member of Charles Manson’s “family,” and spreading out to include old-timey gold-diggers, modern-day prostitutes and recluses, the people that tend to lurk in the shadows of society, all portrayed in Watkins stories with unflinching honesty, all treated with deep respect and great compassion.
My favorite stories were The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past (an account of Nevada hookers, European backpackers, and those who get lost in the Las Vegas desert and do not return) and Man-o-War (the story of an old recluse miner and a teenage runaway and the brief time they spend together in the middle of nowhere.) So if you’re at the bookstore deciding whether or not to buy, those are the stories I would flip to and skim.
Watkins garners comparisons to Joan Didion and Annie Proulx and I think those comparisons are fair and deserved. Her prose is spare and elegant and would get a thumbs-up in any MFA workshop. Her subjects are fascinating and underexplored. Her churning guts are evident on every page and so is her beating heart. If you’re looking for an absorbing and provoking collection of short stories, if you want to read something that gets to the core of what it means to be American for many, many people, I would push this sucker across the table towards you.
WHAT KIND OF GIRLFRIEND IS SHE: Cowboy boots and a wide trailer stuffed with used and overdue library books. When I bring up going to the Vegas strip and gambling or going to see a musical she laughs in my face and instead we dig out our sleeping bags and spend the night in the desert under the stars.
MY DATE WITH BATTLEBORN-
I find her dying of thirst in the desert.
I bring her inside and pour her a Brita Filter-ed glass of water.
A Brita Filter Date is actually very romantic if you were just dying of thirst in the desert moments earlier.