Sunday, December 16, 2012

2012 Catapult Notable List - #6

#6: Battleborn: Stories by Claire Vaye Watkins
 
After reading this stunning debut collection of stories, I felt roughed up, battered, like this girl just punched me in the face as hard as she could. The characters populating the tales of Claire Vaye Watkins seem to hang just at the fringes of society, held just at an arm’s length, but close enough to give the reader a whiff of what they're packing. They're almost all broken, obsessive, and heartbroken in some way, but as uncomfortable as all of these people make me on some basic, primordial level, I could not tear my eyes away from them. Watkins’ Nevada - a character in and of itself - is a land of broken hearts, bunny ranches, abusive spouses, gold diggers, dried-up lakebeds, and firecrackers in the desert. A l'il rundown:

Ghosts, Cowboys
This opener unfolds in a calm, disarming way, but Watkins gently takes you by the hand and leads you into her own dark backstory. In reality, her father, whom she never really knew, was a non-murdering member of the Manson family. Almost as a way of combating the inevitable queries that come with a story like this, she fires off an opening salvo that covers the Manson-thing as quickly as possible. Told from what could be her own perspective, she tells of the child born (by Charlie wielding a razor blade) while the Family was living on George Spahn's ranch in the California mountains that haunts her like a spectre. "My father didn't kill anyone. And he's not a hero. This isn't that kind of story." Whew.

The Last Thing We Need
While driving in the Nevada desert outside his hometown, Thomas Gray comes across "what looked to be the debris left over from an auto accident." Among the detritus strewn all over the road he finds two prescription bottles (labeled for a Duane Moser), a Ziploc bag filled with letters, and a bundle of photos of an old car. The story is told in the format of confession-style letters written by Thomas to this mysterious, possible car accident victim, Duane Moser. This one was
one of my favorites, also unfolding slowly, morphing from the innocent & naïve handling of a weird situation into something darker, more serious and personal. 

Rondine Al Nino
This one is probably the most disturbing piece in this collection. Again, it's told in a sort of confessional style, of a woman telling a new lover of "something terrible" she once did, a sort of "I'll show you mine if you show me yours" sort of thing. The confession, of sorts, is of the time when the woman was 16 and she went to Las Vegas with her friend Lena. They got drunk on the Strip and met a group of college boys who took them back to their hotel room. Brace yourself. The narrator has (possibly consensual?) sex with one of the boys, while Lena passes out while they're all watching a movie and is raped by the other two boys. When Lena wakes up in the middle of all of this, groggy, drunk, and scared, the narrator tells her "It's okay. We're having fun" and urges her back into the bed. Supremely fucked up.


The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past
Two Italian hikers get separated in the Nevada desert. One gets lost, one ends up at the Cherry Patch Ranch surrounded by prostitutes. Michele tells himself he's waiting for his friend to return, to somehow wander back into town on his own so they can go home. In the meantime, he begins to fall in love with Darla, one of the working girls at the ranch, setting himself up for heartbreak.

Wish You Were Here, The Archivist, and Graceland - these three stories were my least favorites, as they were populated by Watkins' most-obsessive creations. There's some great tension that builds in Wish, but the other two house characters so broken as to be borderline pathetic. This is not to say that any of these are not phenomenally well-written, they just weren't my thing, that's all. Onward.

Man-o-War
My favorite of the collection - you can really feel the desert heat & smell the chaparral & the sharp sulfur stink of firecrackers. Harris - a hermit living in the Nevada desert - is out collecting abandoned fireworks near his home one fine morning (kids bring them out to the middle of nowhere to fire off, then get drunk and forget where the stash is) when he finds a teenaged Mexican girl passed out on dry lake bed. He takes her home to get her out of the deadly blazing sun and over a 24-hour period, the two end up forging a bond over their shared loneliness and heartache. But eventually, someone will come looking for the girl...

The Diggings
More of a novella, this one, about two brothers who moved from Ohio to California during the 1849 gold rush to make their fortune for their family. It doesn't really work out. An intense and weighty story about the driving obsessions of men that takes on a voyeuristic quality as one brother - the narrator - watches the other slowly descend into gold madness. "I could not endure the fact of his believing, believing, believing beyond the rotten end."

Virginia City

Another vaguely obsessive tale here about mixed up feelings of love and lust between three friends. It more exudes a vibe, rather than being so plot-driven. I don't know, I just kind of dug this one.
"She puts her head on his shoulder like he's always been there. Like the three of us have always been right here. I feel the last three beers resting like silver nuggets in the bottom of my purse. Below us glow the blue-orange flames in the lamps along Main Street. We drink and watch the sun dissolve into the Sierras, and for a small sparkling moment, we are who we once were."
The bottom line is that Watkins is a remarkable powerhouse talent. While her stories are all filled with a profound grief, longing, and obsession, they beg to be read. Her prose is so sharp and crisp, you find yourself wanting more and more, despite the preponderance of broken lives the stories showcase. Maybe they need to be taken in slowly, one at a time, spread out over a long period, in order to allow them to fully absorb into your head. I'd say that maybe readers need to pick & choose the ones they read, but I think the whole collection offers a broader scope of the author's own experience, functioning much like a memoir would. What they definitely do need is to just be read.

Buy Battleborn from your local independent bookstore.
 
#7: A Sense of Direction
#8: The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving
#9: The Yellow Birds
#10: Me, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World
The 2012 Notable Notables 

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