The stories in Battleborn all unfold in Watkins's home state of Nevada, from down south in Nye County and Las Vegas, to Reno, Lake Tahoe, Virginia City and the Black Rock Desert, the site of Burning Man. We are introduced to a very specific small-town America, to those homes and lives off the highway - the ones travellers and writers usually bypass on their way to somewhere else. While the locations are ordinary, the characters and Watkins's telling of their lives is anything but. There is the man who finds a cache of letters, pills and a photograph abandoned by the side of the road and as he writes to the man he imagines left them behind, reveals moving truths about himself ('The Last Thing We Need'); the man in late middle age who finds a troubled, pregnant teen dying in the desert and, through her, begins to dream of regaining the family he lost ('Man-O-War'); the brothers caught in the early days of the gold rush ('The Diggings'); and the sisters unable to comfort each other following their mother's suicide ('Graceland'). And there is the first story ('Ghosts, Cowboys'), a semi-autobiographical account of a troubled - and infamous - family history.
These are stories to take the reader right to the heart of a truly American experience - face pressed up against a window, peeking past the unwashed panes to watch lives unfold. In their very specificity, these are stories that are also universal.
The people in Battleborn are wounded yet compassionate, despairing and lonely, but always open to a hug, a kiss, a way out, a way in, or a fleeting moment of companionship. These aren't characters in stories, but human beings perpetually yearning for warmth. Fortunately, this book contains many stories because I read them for days. Claire Vaye Watkins has apparently sprung fully formed into the narrow pantheon of young writers willing to take narrative risks, eschewing trend and style for depth and wisdom. Entering the varied lives is akin to watching a tightrope walker high overhead, moving with steady confidence without a net. I found no missteps, no wobbles, no hesitations. As every story ended, I exhaled a long breath I didn't know I'd been holding. Watkins writes with precision and care, the sentences themselves as surprising as the events, the dialogue, and the spare description. On a purely formal level, these stories shatter the forward motion of time. They move easily and readily from the present to the past and even to the near future. For lack of a better term, there is a purity to the prose that is a constant pleasure to read. Watkins makes beautiful art by embracing the rigors of the short story form, considered the most difficult in literature, then tossing out the rules and inventing some of her own. She blends history and fact with fiction to create a new mythology of the American West the untold stories of people seeking connection with the past, the land, and each other. There is great originality in these narratives. I was deeply moved by the core of emotion within each story. The settings are fresh desert, brothel, ghost town, casino, a series of letters. But the generosity and personal sacrifices of the people are as universal as the stars at night. Chris Offutt is the author, most recently, of No Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home. He lives in Mississippi.