Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins

The mind is a mine.  So often we revisit its winding, unsound caverns when we ought to stay out.

The first story in Claire Vaye Watkins' collection Battleborn is, supposedly, improbably, semiautobiographical: Watkins, whose father spent some time palling around with Charles Manson back in his day, ends up living in the same Reno building as a woman who Manson plucked, as a newborn, from her mother with the help of a razorblade.  She calls this woman Razor Blade Baby.  This is the kind of place that Watkins' Nevada is--not a place of stark natural beauty (though there's a little of that), but a cursed place, where civilization is blighted and all human activity takes on a pall of seediness and desperation.  I've never been to Las Vegas, but that probably about describes it, right?

Some of the stories are a little self-conscious and distant for me.  The name "Razor Blade Baby" has a sinister mystery to it, but where it might have sparked a poem it keeps me at an uncomfortable distance in the story.  "The Last Thing We Need" struggles to find a voice that works in its epistolary form.  In that story a man, who is haunted by an act of violence in his past, writes letters to another man, whose things he finds in the detritus of a car wreck on an empty highway.  The details of the letter-writer's life are real and stark enough.  He writes about going camping with his daughter, waking up to find that she's not there, only to find her after a few desperate moments playing nearby--but rather than hugging her, he hits her.  That feels true to me, but the letter-writing shtick seems more like an MFA exercise than a story.  "Virginia City" has a promising setting--a kitschy pioneer museum town in the desert--on which it hangs a limp story about shallow hipster friendships.

Two of the stories stood out for me.  One is "Man-O-War," about a divorced prospector who finds an unconscious Hispanic girl out in the malicious saltpan of the Great Basin.  It could have been a hokey disaster--lonely old man is reinvigorated by the friendship of a rebellious teen--but Watkins walks the narrow line between touching and creepy.  I love how he thinks in geological metaphors ("for months the photos slid around the house like sheets of gypsum").  I love how the protagonist is self-aware enough to be guarded against both the girl's friendship and her physical attractiveness, but is not strong enough to fend them off.  The title object is a massive discarded firework he sets off to impress her, and in a classically tragic touch, also the thing that alerts her father to her whereabouts.  No one lights a giant-ass firework to impress himself.

The other is a novella about nineteenth-century prospectors called "The Diggings":

In California gold was what God was in the rest of the country: everything, everywhere.  My brother Errol told of a man on a stool beside him who bought a round with a pinch of dust.  He told of a child dawdling in a gully who found a queerly colored rock and took it to his mother, who boiled it with lye in her teakettle for a day to be sure of its composition.  He told of a drunkard Pike who'd found a lake whose shores sparkled with the stuff but could not, once sober, retrieve the memory of where it was.  There were men drowning in color, men who could not walk into the woods to empty their bladders without shouting, Eureka!

And then there were those who had nothing  There were those who worked like slaves every single day, those who had attended expensive lectures on geology and chemistry back home, those who had absorbed every metallurgy manual on the passage westward, put to memory every map of those sinister foothills, scrutinized every speck of filth the territory offered and in the end were rewarded without so much as a glinting in their pans.

"The Diggings" is, first and foremost, a good yarn: a story about two brothers, one of whom has prophetic visions, going west to find gold.  They never find it, but the prophetic one, tired of looking, lies about having a vision of gold, which leads his brother to an obsessive madness.  It reads, quite successfully, like a first-ditch attempt at writing a novel, and it makes me think that Watkins' Gold Fame Citrus could be really good.

The Nevada-California border of this story is not so different from the one in the contemporary stories; it's an inhospitable space that dismisses and murders the brilliance of human ambition.  The failed promise of the gold is not so different from the failed promise of Manson's family, or the failed promise in the smiles of the sex workers in "Rondine al Nido," or the failed promise of the girl passed out in the basin.  There's a touch of love for Watkins' native country in these stories, but it's an honest kind of love, bereft of sentimentality.

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