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English department

Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins

Battle of Bitterness

Claire Vaye Watkins could have written a memoir; she could have told of growing up with her father, Paul Watkins, right hand man – and provider of women – to Charles Manson (Manson murders). Instead, she wrote Battleborn, a work of short fiction born out of the Nevada landscape. The ten stories are dedicated to her parents; perhaps this is why they probe the depths of human depravity and often provide only a sordid, subtle kind of hope.

“Ghosts, Cowboys,” Watkins’ first and only memoir in the work, starts the reader’s head spinning. Her novel narrative techniques and her flippant description of vulgarities can shock, confuse, and even frustrate the unsuspecting reader. Watkins implores the reader to “begin here […] or here […] or here,” in search of an adequate birthplace for the book’s atrocities, breakups, and, yes, orgies. The beginnings cited in “Ghosts, Cowboys” include Henry Comstock, one of Nevada’s first claim jumpers, “blowing his brains out with a revolver,” and the broken marriage and burned home of Nevada architect Himmel Green, and the death of George Spahn and his dying ranch. These beginnings historically range from the early 1860’s to the late 1960’s. However, it seems clear that the short stories truly begin when Watkins’ father and Charles Manson first arrive at George Spahn’s ranch in 1968, together with eight other pot-smoking, sex-driven teens. Watkins uses this initial memoir to establish her credentials: kin to hard times, native to Nevada, and not afraid of a wild party.

Short story collections must have an overarching theme, one which unites the stories into a cohesive work. And from “Ghosts, Cowboys” to “Graceland,” the final story in the collection, the theme must be bitterness. “The Diggings” depicts the disappointment of two brothers, one disappointed by the lack of gold, the other by the spite of his brother. Characters chase dreams of striking it rich, uniting with an old boyfriend, or receiving love from a mother, but often settle for a situation consonant with Carly’s sister in “The Archivist,” smoking pot in the bathtub. Every. Single. Night.

Even In “Graceland,” no grace is found, only two sisters pining after their deceased mother. Watkins toes the line between realistic characters, dark yet relatable, and stagnant characters, static and depressing. The reader may sympathize with Carly as she screams at her sister, “It’s like I’m trying to dig you out when all you want is to be buried.” The pessimist might argue that Watkins’ characters begin to blend together into one dismal haze of despair.

While her characters might on their worst days be deemed flat, Watkins writes with an honest vibrancy that appeals to the brave of heart. This honesty can be reflected in the words of Thomas Grey, a married, but lonely Nevadan who stumbles upon the wrecked car of Duane Moser. In the wreckage is Moser’s address, and Grey begins to write him. With aptitude, Watkins crafts an entire story from the pen of Grey, using simple statements such as, “I’ll tell you what I don’t tell her,” or, “My father can be difficult.” With each letter, she reveals Grey as a man with “sinking spirits [and] old stories.”

In terms of her harsh attention to reality, Watkins’ stories are reminiscent of Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” where an unprepared Klondike hiker falls prey to both the cold and his own incompetency. In “The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous”, Mitchell, a vacationing hiker, loses his friend in the Nevada desert. However, Mitchell waits for good news at a brothel, a sex ranch near Las Vegas, drinking cheap beer, and falling in love with a prostitute (not trying to kindle a fire). While the plot sounds promising, the lack of resolution and the vulgarity leave the reader wondering why he or she even cared about Mitchell or his lost friend. Unlike London, Watkins’ characters can be dispassionate, possessed by a desire to remain fixed in their ways.

Yet Watkins writes with an eye open to reality. Her characters often reflect precisely the lifestyles that her father’s friends may have had. Her plotlines are common, believable. Life is bitterness, and Battleborn reflects this. But between the flat characters and the less than satisfactory resolutions, the danger is that the reader is left with only despair, and nothing more. Battleborn is a stab at making profundity out of the banal; and while Stephen Crane might disagree, Battleborn lies somewhere in the realm of coarsely mediocre.