The OF Blog: 2012 National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35 author: Claire Vaye Watkins, Battleborn

Sunday, November 18, 2012

2012 National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35 author: Claire Vaye Watkins, Battleborn

The day my mom checked out, Razor Blade Baby moved in.  At the end, I can't stop thinking about beginnings.

The city of Reno, Nevada, was founded in 1859 when Charles Fuller built a log toll bridge across the Truckee River and charged prospectors to haul their Comstock silver across the narrow but swift-moving current.  Two years later, Fuller sold the bridge to the ambitious Myron Lake.  Lake, swift himself, added a gristmill, kiln and livery stable to his Silver Queen Hotel and Eating House.  Not a bashful man, he named the community Lake's Crossing, had the name painted on Fuller's bridge, bright blue as the sky.

The 1860s were boom times in the western Utah Territory:  Americans still had the brackish taste of Sutter's soil on their tongues, ten-year-old gold still glinting in their eyes.  The curse of the Comstock Lode had not yet leaked from the silver vein, not seeped into the water table.  The silver itself had not yet been stripped from the mountains, and steaming water had not yet flooded the mine shafts.  Henry T.P. Comstock – most opportune of the opportunists, snatcher of land, greatest claim jumper of all time – had not yet lost his love Adelaide, his first cousin, who drowned in Lake Tahoe.  He had not yet traded his share of the lode for a bottle of whiskey and an old, blind mare, not yet blown his brains out with a borrowed revolver near Bozeman, Montana.

Boom Times. (pp. 1-2)

Claire Vaye Watkins is one of two writers on the 2012 National Book Foundation's list of 5 Under 35 authors who has yet to publish a novel.  Her debut collection, Battleborn (2012), however, is one of the more impressive collections of short fiction released this year.  In stories such as the opening "Ghosts, Cowboys," Watkins is in full command of the stories she desires to tell, often intermingling stark and sometimes violent histories with the personal (for example, her own father, who once was associated with Charles Manson before the Manson Family turned violent) to create vividly-told stories replete with memorable settings and a cast of rogues and would-be saints and heroes.

Watkins' ten stories reflect the clash of dreams and harsh realities.  From the silver-poisoned lands polluted by the miners of the Comstock Lode and other such mines in Nevada to the sometimes brutal desert sun, the landscape is the antithesis of verdant pastures and pastoral dreams.  Consider the passage quoted above from "Ghosts, Cowboys."  The "curse" of the Comstock Lode, the image of silver being "stripped" from the mountains – these are precursors to suicides after the dreams fail, the suffering of those who strive to change their worlds.  Watkins' prose here and in many other scenes in the other stories is sharp, cutting with its parallels to nature and its pollution.

The characters are reminiscent of those found in Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy or Blood Meridian without being direct copies.  There is the woman who tries to assuage her guilt over leading her friend years before to a brothel and a sexual assault.  There is the daughter who gets stoned while trying to remember an important person in her life, before deciding to smoke more, to smoke until a temporary oblivion overcomes her.  There is the sense, such as this little passage from "The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous" that civilization itself is but a veneer that is slowly being rubbed off, as proprieties dissolve into desires and needs:

She babbles on like that, and the boy seems to like it.  That's the difference between the ranch and a strip club.  Here, some men come in just to talk.  Sure, they want a piece of ass so bad that they're coming out of their skin to pay for it.  But there's something that brings out the lonesomeness in them.  Maybe it's being so far from civilization.  Manny's heard them afterward, over the intercom.  Old men, young men, men with wives or steady girlfriends, men who've never had anybody in their whole pathetic lives.  They listen to their date chatter until the hour is up, and when she reaches for her clothes or the white wedge of towel on the nightstand to wipe herself, they hold her tightly and say, so softly it might be mistaken for a blip of static over the wires, Wait. (pp. 84-85)

Although several of these situations might seem at first glance to be bleak, there are signs of life blooming, or at least transforming itself, under the surface.  The "West" (and Nevada in particular, over the course of its most recent 164 years) has long been in the literature of the Westerns been a place of futures, of people setting out to obliterate their old lives and to forge new ones.  In Watkins' stories, which span the period between Nevada's creation as a state in 1864 to the present day, there certainly is that sense of characters creating something new out of an apparent wasteland of nature and of humanity.  Violence often is used as a metaphor for these changes as well as being a commentary on the depravities of humanity.  Watkins utilizes violent imagery and actions sparingly but almost always to great affect, crafting tales that feel as though they could have existed for decades, if not two centuries, while almost feeling fresh and original.  It is an impressive balancing act that she pulls off with virtually no missteps.

Battleborn is a collection that should appeal to those who have enjoyed Cormac McCarthy's take on Westerns, although it should be noted that the thrust of Watkins' lyrical prose differs in certain key elements from McCarthy's.  There is as much discussion of the deserts of our hearts and our desires to make them bloom as there are on the more traditional Western tropes of man versus nature or man versus man.  Battleborn simply is a series of battles that unfold within and outside the characters' ken and the result is one of the strongest debut collections released in years.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, I'll be putting this on the TBR pile as well!


Larry Nolen said...

You're welcome. But somehow I doubt you'll put the next book I review on the list, even though I think it's pretty good. But that review will have to wait until tonight at the earliest.

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