By Claire Vaye Watkins
Let’s just get this out there: Claire Vaye Watkins is the daughter of Paul Watkins, best known as Charles Manson’s right-hand man. Claire’s debut collection wants to get this fact out of the way early on, too: the first story, “Ghost, Cowboys,” has a narrator named Claire who’s the daughter of Paul Watkins and who, throughout the story, pieces together the facts and fictions that define where we come from and who we become. “I can’t stop thinking about beginnings,” she confesses, and then we get a series of beginnings, each one shifting and widening the story’s lens until we understand how big each of these stories intends to be. “You know this part, I’m sure,” narrator Claire tells us when broaching the Manson stuff, and we feel (rightfully) scolded, but also certain we’re in the hands of a writer ready to push us past the titillating and into darker territory.
All 10 stories are set in Nevada and draw on settings that initially feel like familiar landscapes in the cultural imagination of the Battleborn State: casinos, brothels, deserts, the Gold Rush. But like the best writers, Watkins blows past the familiar and shows us lives shaped by the desolate backdrop, transforming and expanding our idea of the place to include those most often left out of its narrative. In the story “The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past”—which, as the title suggests, plays with structure and time—the life of a tourist who’s lost his friend in the desert collides with that of a young prostitute and with her pimp, a man still sorting out his love for the pimp he replaced via an almost-literal communion with peacocks. One story is told through unanswered letters, the silence from the other end reverberating throughout the rest of the book: characters yearn for companionship, for a way to understand the chaos they’ve mistaken for passion.
The collection is bookended by stories about a young woman reeling after her mother’s suicide, but this trauma, much like the setting, serves as only the starting point for each character’s attempt to simultaneously shed and embrace a complicated legacy. That legacy—and the harsh terrain from which it sprang—lingers for Battleborn’s characters and for reader in much the same way.