Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Claire Vaye Watkins' BATTLEBORN: My Favorite for The Story Prize--2013

I must admit, the first notices I saw of Claire Vaye Watkins’ debut collection of stories, Battleborn, made me drop my shoulders in a sigh—stories by a young woman just out of graduate school whose father, Paul Watkins, was a member of the Charles Manson “family.”  “Helter Skelter” sensationalism, I suspected--before reading her stories.  Only the first one, entitled “Ghosts, Cowboys,” refers to that notorious madness that resulted in the meaningless deaths of several innocent people, including director Roman Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, and that one Watkins wrote primarily just to “get it out of the way.”

Actually, only the reviewers and bloggers seem interested in Claire Watkins’ parentage; it is not something she has encouraged to sell her book. If you are interested, you can find lots of background many places on the Internet, including a televised interview with Paul Watkins the year before he died of cancer, when his daughter was only six. (By the way, he was not involved in the killings and actually testified against Manson in court).  The only aspect of Claire Watkins’ background relevant to her stories is the fact that she grew up in desert communities in Nevada and California. The title of the collection is a tribute to those origins, for Nevada came into the U.S. union during the Civil War—thus was “battleborn.”

Although she has been compared to Annie Proulx, Richard Ford, Wallace Stegner, and Cormac McCarthy, the comparison is only surface-sand-deep; indeed, she has said that she never read those writers.  Her stories are mostly set in the Reno/Las Vegas/ Pahrump areas of Nevada, but it is her characters (prospectors, prostitutes, and lost young women) and her carefully controlled use of language that make the stories irresistible--not the landscape.

In an interview, Watkins has said that many of her characters try hard to make room inside themselves for someone else, but are haunted by some toxic legacy from their past.  Although her characters often hope for love as an antidote to that toxicity, she says, they feel the toxicity is so much a part of themselves that to have it dislodged is to risk self-annihilation.  As a result, they often hug the hurt caused by the past poison as part of their identify.  Watkins says, “They fear the self-severing that is a part of loving someone.”

The story perhaps most illustrative of the self-destructiveness that such an attitude creates is “The Archivist,” in which a woman with “a good man at home” runs off with an abusive addict.  Why? Because her mother was similarly self destructive, and the central character fears that if she gets married and has a baby, the child’s first thoughts, even in the womb, will be those of loss, fear, and anger, for, she adds, this is probably what happened to her.

Chris Offutt, a writer whose work I much admire and who knows a great sentence when he is seduced by one, has said in a Publishers Weekly review that Watkins’ sentences are as surprising as the events, dialogue, and descriptions in her stories.  “For lack of a better term,” says Offutt, “there is a purity to the prose that is a constant pleasure to read.” I agree.

The opening story, “Ghosts, Cowboys,” has six different beginnings.  But this is not as much of a gimmick as it sounds.  Trying to come to terms with where her own story all began is a legitimate gambit. And Watkins feels, quite rightly that she has to deal with her father’s connection to the Manson nightmare right away. This story actually begins with the birth of a baby at the Spahn ranch who Manson himself delivered with a razor blade when the mother refused to push.  Now called “Razor Blade Baby,” she moves in upstairs from the narrator, (named Claire Watkins).  After Watkins takes her with her on a date with a movie producer looking for a story and then takes her to a movie, Razor Blade Baby tells Claire they could be sisters—something Watkins has already accepted as part of the legacy of her father’s past.

“The Last Thing We Need” is an epistolary story, in which a man who has found some detritus in the desert, including the picture of a 1966 Chevy Chevelle and prescription bottles, begins writing to the man whose address he finds on the bottles. The reader gradually determines that the letters are a kind of plea for forgiveness for having killed a man who tried to rob the gas station where he worked.

“Rondine Al Nido” (“Swallows Nest”) is the story a woman tells a man she is sleeping with about when she was a sixteen-year old girl (referred to only as “Our Girl”) who takes her friend Lena to Las Vegas to find “boys who came to Las Vegas looking for girls willing to do the things she and Lena think they are willing to do.” Although her friend is afraid and wants to back out, “Our Girl” insists, telling her “she had to get it over with.”  Although there is a self-destructive selfishness about the central character’s determination to “be bad,” there is also something inevitable and completely understandable about her action.

“The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past” focuses on a young Italian tourist whose friend has gone missing in the desert while they vacation in Nevada.  When he ends up at a brothel near Las Vegas, he becomes the object of desire and potential conflict for more than one of the occupants of the house as he tries to cope with the loss of his friend. The characters in the story are never probed very deeply, but as they cluster around the young man, they come alive because of their individual needs.

“Wish You Were Here” is about a young woman who has “irresponsible habits”—a woman who can spend the whole day “inflaming the listlessness inside her with erotic fantasies of men who, for the most part, had been unkind to her.”  But “The Archivist” is arguably the best story about a young woman with irresponsible habits who, although she has a relationship with a young man who cares for her, is irresistibly drawn to a man who mistreats and then leaves her, spending much of her time creating an imaginary Museum of Love Lost in which she creates mementos of her relationship with the bad guy who left her.

Harris, the central character of “Man-O-War,” is a rock hound who lives alone in the desert after his wife deserted him years before, scavenging fireworks left by partying teenagers. After he finds a wounded pregnant teenager in the desert, he takes her home and cares for her. Feeling like both a father and an erstwhile lover, he tries to impress her by setting off a valuable cache of fireworks in the desert night.  Although she does not want to leave, when her father shows up, creating a tense confrontation between him and Harris, she allows herself to be taken home, leaving Harris alone as before. The story’s success derives from the rhythm of the language that creates Harris’ loneliness, confusion, and efforts to survive.

I like these stories because they engage me in the life of characters who don’t always make the right choices (or at least choices of which I don’t approve), but whose choices I somehow understand.  I particularly like the stories because Claire Watkins understands the mystery of her characters’ motivations.  I like these stories because they are so carefully and lovingly written. The rhythm of the sentences and their narrative flow seem so exactly correspondent with the rhythm of life and thought of the characters. 

In my opinion, if The Story Prize truly exists, as its website declares, to “honor short story collections, which other major book awards for fiction often overlook,” then Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn should be chosen over Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her and Dan Chaon’s Stay Awake.  Not just because Diaz and Chaon have received award attention in the past, but because whereas their collections are certainly competent “jobs of work,” drawing on their previously well-developed subjects and playing with established generic conventions, Claire Vaye Watkins’ stories are finely honed explorations of complex human personality and genuine feeling.  While Diaz’s and Chaon’s stories are “fun” to read, Watkins’ stories challenge me to identify and understand.

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