Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Scorched-Earth Stories: Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins

by Claire Vaye Watkins
Guest review by Kim Anderson

The scorched earth fury of Claire Vaye Watkins’ new collection of short stories, Battleborn, leaves this reader gasping for air.  In a good way.

From the epigraph (Stephen Crane’s “In the desert/I saw a creature, naked, bestial,/Who, squatting upon the ground,/Held his heart in his hands,/And ate of it…”) all the way to the final story “Graceland,” we are in a blast furnace: the American desert west, blazing sun, lots of empty, little hope.  People die (lots of people die); people make terrible, horrible mistakes; people can’t connect; people are very, very lonely.

And yet, the collection feels somehow hopeful.  Just as a green shoot in the middle of the desert seems miraculous, so, too, tiny acts of kindness or tenderness become revelatory in these stories.  “In The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past,” what starts out as a sad, rather sordid story of a bunch of hard-to-like losers—the feckless Italian youth who loses his best friend in the Nevada desert and lives off the bounty of the sheriff department’s ATM card; the hookers at the Cherry Patch Ranch; Manny, the gay male “madam” who runs the ranch—grows into a quiet rondo that explores the fragility of love.

In “The Last Thing We Need” Watkins manages to evoke an entire universe through six unanswered letters Thomas Grey writes to the owner of some prescription medications and groceries Grey finds in the desert.  The letters (granted a hoary convention) start out normal, but quickly veer into a confession  that Watkins makes work by the sheer startling oddness of her creations.  Here’s Grey writing about his wife to the stranger:
Here is a story she likes to tell. On one of our first dates, we walked arm in arm around downtown Reno, where she was a clerk at a grocery store and I was a student of agriculture and business. There she tried to pull me down a little flight of steps to the red-lit underground residence of a palm reader and psychic. I declined. Damn near an hour she pulled on me, saying what was I afraid of, asking what was the big deal. I am not a religious man but, as I told her then, there are some things I’d rather not fuck with. Now she likes to say it’s a good thing I wouldn’t go in, because if that psychic had told her she’d be stuck with me for going on fourteen years now, she would have turned and headed for the hills. Ha! And I say, Honey, not as fast as I would’ve, ha, ha! This is our old joke. Like all our memories, we like to take it out once in a while and lay it flat on the kitchen table, the way my wife does with her sewing patterns, where we line up the shape of our life against that which we thought it would be by now.
Watkins’ language is spare, dry as the desert, deceptively simple like that passage, turning at the end to something spikier, odder than you thought when you started, with an addictive slightly bitter aftertaste.

Kim Anderson is the Associate Director of Programs for Humanities Montana.  Her articles, essays, fiction and poetry have appeared in publications like The New York Times, The Journal of Commerce, Redbook, Ladies Home Journal, Horizon, The Financial Times, Quest, and others.

1 comment:

  1. I loved that part of "The Last Thing We Need" as well. It was such an interesting collection of stories--all beautiful and haunting, but also so different in the content that each felt fresh.