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English department

Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins

Never have I read stories such as these. They are at times casual in tone, at others fraught with sincerity. Subject matter becomes blatantly erotic or passively sexual and at times feels needless. In all of this Claire Vaye Watkins brings to life characters that are incredibly human in their depravity, relatable in their ability for self-destruction and mutual misfortune. The landscape in which the stories unfold is desolate and barren, but described in prose canvassed on dust.

According to the New York Times, her father, Paul Watkins, was the right-hand man of Charles Manson, the leader of the “Manson Family” cult. When Paul Watkins died, Claire was only six, she did not know of her father’s involvement. It was not until she was ten years old that she learned what he did. Watkins grew up on either side of the California-Nevada boarder, in small towns, tucked away from the bustle of Las Vegas. These influences become apparent while reading through her first anthology.

The work contains ten short stories, each of which revolves around Nevada, whose state slogan is Battle Born. The opening story is a history of sorts, in that her father and Charles Mason are depicted for a time, but also a memoir, in that Claire herself enters the pages. And still, it is a work of fiction. Watkins said this story “functions as a legend or key for reading the rest of the book” and reiterates the question that many stories ask: “Did this really happen?” (Salon).

This introductory story takes us through several possible begins, starting here or perhaps there or even a little further along the timeline. Those who end up being the main characters are rarely named. Their personalities are veiled with inaction and complacency. These are all things that can be found in the other stories of this anthology.

The themes of generational sin and familial transgressions course through Watkins’ stories. “Wish You Were Here” tells the story of a woman caught in a marriage she has grown to resent. The story itself is told using a third-person narrative in present tense. This creates an immediacy of the action and a stress of the conflict, which does not fluctuate much throughout the story. It is not until final page, when Marin believes she has suffocated their child in her blankets. “The soft, papery blankets of babies, the substantial bulky blankets of adults. They all smell of wet dog. Carter is there. Right there. He moans. Between them – somewhere – is the mass of her child. Their child” (119 Watkins).

Redemption and hope are scarce in these stories, and when found are marred by later iniquity. In “The Past Perfect, the Past Continuous, the Simple Past”, an Italian tourist loses his friend in the desert. Attempting to take a taxi to a hotel, the driver misinterprets Michele’s request and brings the twenty year old to a sex ranch.

Here, Michele finds refuge with prostitutes and falls in love, while waiting for the police to find his lost friend. Instead of taking one of the women with him, Michele leaves America alone. He will never visit home, but instead deny the reality of his friend’s death.

“Rondine Al Nido” is one of the most stylistically interesting, yet contextually disturbing tales Watkins has chosen to showcase. A narrator tells the story of a woman who has gone home with a man. They have sex and then begin to talk of their previous sexual encounters. The woman tells a story of when she and a co-worker ran away from home to Las Vegas. Their goal was to become adults and have sex with men, and that is exactly what happens.

In the present, the woman is referred to as “our girl” in present tense, because she is somehow a possession of the reader. The future tense, describes what will happen to “our girl”, and the perpetual decisions she will make. The language used in this story can come across as quite offensive: “They called her names. Drunk cunt. Fuck rag” (58 Watkins).

The casual explanations of the narrator and the passive emotions of “our girl” result in a casually sexual tone, that permeates through many of these stories. Sex is treated as something that happens, but also something that can mean very little.

To read this anthology is to invite despair and heartbreak into your mind. The characters are bleak, the locations are dismal, and the content is shocking. If you choose to read this book, I can only say, “Good luck.”