This week I read this debut story collection from Riverhead Books. This is Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn:
I never would have bought this book if it didn’t already have awesome reviews. Also I love Westerns. Which this is. At first I thought the title sounded kind of silly–like a TV show like Survivor, or a video game where you blow things up. Turns out “battle born” is one of the slogans of Nevada and every story here takes place at least partly in Nevada. And I think it does also speak to the types of characters Watkins has created here. All of them have a hardness to them, at least on the outside. And Nevada is a very battleground in many of these stories–like in “The Diggings” when two brothers search desperately for gold there, or in “the past perfect, the past continuous, the simple past,” when a tourist’s buddy disappears in the desert and never returns. But Nevada still has a lot to offer and so do these characters.
Despite their hardness, each story slowly reveals a vulnerability underneath that blooms through at particular moments. This is something Watkins does especially well. She provides all the necessary details and back story so that when the climax of the story comes, it goes straight to the heart. I don’t want to give too much away but so I’m keeping it general here, but imagine it like a riddle. The person telling it keeps giving you more and more clues but you can’t figure out the answer until that person finally gives you the answer and then it makes everything else makes sense. That is to say, everything in these stories seems to really belong there. The details really count.
Here’s a taste of this exquisite detail in “Rondine al Nido:”
“By then there will be too much to tell–too much. A pair of expensive tropical lizards she’d begged for, then abandoned in a field to die when their care became tedious. Birthstone rings and a real gold bracelet plucked from a friend’s jewelry box at a sleepover. Asking an ugly, wretched boy with circles of ringworm strung like little galaxies across his head to meet her for a kiss at the flagpole, laughing wildly when he showed. These she’ll have been carrying since girlhood, like very small stones in her pocket. The sensible man will be waiting. Who can say why we offer the parts of ourselves we do, and when.”
That last line really stayed with me. This woman is sharing all these bad secrets about herself with this man but they mostly just show how fragile she is and how she took it out on other people as a kid. I also think this line says a lot about this collection–that even though it might not seem like it, there is some logic to why we offer the parts of ourselves we do and especially when. The magic here is how Watkins always makes that when feel exactly right.
Sorry there’s no video! See you next week!