Claire Vaye Watkins’s debut collection of stories has rightfully garnered a good deal of attention. Like Raymond Carver’s, her work is marked by intricate characterizations, crystalline prose, and clear narrative arcs. Yet a significant difference between these two writers, and one that readers of Western American Literature will find particularly interesting, is their treatment of the American West. Whereas many of Carver’s stories were regionally ambivalent—yes, many of them were set in the West, but place was not always an important thematic concern—Watkins’s project is centrally focused on novel representations of the West.
The title, Battleborn, comes from the motto on Nevada’s state flag referencing its entry into the Union during the Civil War, but it also alludes to the collection’s scarred and embattled characters, and thus from the very first word Watkins helixes together the personal with [End Page 486] the spatial. With one exception, these stories are set in various places throughout Nevada. The opening story, “Ghosts, Cowboys,” establishes the major themes of the book: violence, history’s haunting influences on the present, and a twenty-first-century need to revise the mythology of the US West. The narrative stretches back to the Comstock Lode in 1859, but it also intersects with the author’s own personal history as the daughter of Paul Watkins, a member of Charles Manson’s “Family.” In a sense, then, Watkins acts as both author and narrator, which helps to explain the essayistic tone of the piece. Just about every rule of craft is broken here, but the fictional elements nevertheless work. Avoiding any degree of sensationalism, Watkins bravely writes her family’s story into the history of the US West.
Throughout the collection, Nevada emerges as a place “far from civilization,” a doubly encoded phrase meaning not only that Turner’s frontier thesis has been diachronically superseded, but also that the liminality of the state’s cultural logic—for example, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas—contains masochistic sexual undertones (84). Nowhere is this more evident than in “Rondine al Nido,” the story at the heart of Battleborn. A woman tells her lover about the night she and a high school friend drove from their small town to Las Vegas. On the Strip, they met four young men and went back to their hotel room. The friend was drunk and wanted to go home, but the narrator bullied her into staying, which led to tragic results. The story ends on September 11, 2001, with the narrator watching her former friend cry upon hearing the news, thereby brilliantly juxtaposing the public acts of destruction on 9/11 against the brutal forms of sexuality that remain relatively hidden behind the hotel doors of Las Vegas.
Watkins’s stories stand out for many reasons, including her range in craft and representations of women, but her treatment of the US West is simply remarkable. Though she has thus far published only one collection, she nevertheless deserves to join the ranks of Sherman Alexie, Ron Carlson, Dagoberto Gilb, Antonya Nelson, Annie Proulx, and Sam Shepard. In the post-Carver era of western short story writers, she is already one of the region’s finest.