‘Battleborn’ by Claire Vaye Watkins

‘Battleborn’,  stories by Claire Vaye Watkins   (2012) –  283 pages

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What do we know about Nevada?  There’s the legal gambling, Las Vegas and Reno, and the accompanying shiny sleaze.  The huge desert and the mountains make a large part of the state breathtakingly beautiful but nearly uninhabitable.   The Comstock Lode in western Nevada was the first major discovery of silver ore in 1859.  It made some people rich but left a lot of others cursing their luck.

‘Battleborn’ is a collection of stories in which Claire Vaye Watkins captures the beauty and the desolation as well as the crassness of this place Nevada.

By now you probably know the story of Claire Vaye Watkins herself.  Her father was Paul Watkins who was a member of the Manson family, in fact at one point Charlie Manson’s right hand man and a new member recruiter for the family.  Later he became a key witness for the prosecution in the murder trials providing the Helter Skelter motive for the Manson crimes.

Of the fiction writers who write about the western United States, the one that Watkins most resembles is Denis Johnson.  Both Johnson and Watkins have that unflinching stark quality to their writing that indicates they are willing to write the truth about anything even if it reflects poorly on them selves.  

Although there are several strong stories in ‘Battleborn’, one story, ‘The Past Perfect, the Past Continuous, and the Simple Past’, stands out as particularly devastating for me.  A young guy Michele, an Italian tourist, shows up at the Cherry Patch Ranch, a brothel somewhere near Las Vegas.  His traveling companion wandered off into the desert and is missing.  Michele spends a lot of time waiting at this whorehouse for word from the police about his friend, because if the friend isn’t found in seven days, he’s probably dead.  Michele gets to know the women who work there, especially Darla, as well as the gay manager pimp Manny who also has his eyes on the young guy.  In this story, Watkins captures the desolate sleazy atmosphere inside this brothel so well, it is nearly unforgettable.   The characters here come alive, as real as real can be. This is a classic story. 

The first story in the collection, ‘Ghosts, Cowboys’, has the Manson family in it.  It features a girl called Razor Blade Baby, because Charlie Manson supposedly delivered her as a baby himself using a razor blade.

Well, these stories are like those of Denis Johnson but from the female perspective.   The world always needs more woman writers who are willing and able to deal with the seamy underside of life.

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