Not many people know Claire Vaye Watkins, but probably quite a few remember her father Paul Watkins, Charles Manson’s right-hand man. It’s the kind of brutal family history that some would be afraid to confront, and others would exploit for salacious gain in a lurid tell-all. But with Ghosts, Cowboys, the lead story from her debut collection, Battleborn, Watkins faces down the potentially gruesome marketing plan for her literary career with surprising maturity, and reveals a powerful new voice that deserves recognition ... Watkins’ stories crackle with tension in the desert heat ... The plots of each story are inventive and irresistible ... Most of the stories are soaked in a boozy haze, frenetically compelling, and somehow chockfull of memorable characters and scenes that linger for just the right amount of time. If Battleborn has a drawback, it’s that several of the stories feel slightly redundant...But Watkins’ voice is so fully formed and riveting that even doubling back on previous thematic territory is exciting. She may never get out of her father’s infamous shadow, but with this debut, she’s beginning a legacy all her own.
...[a] magnificent debut collection ... There is a great deal of comfort to be found in the stories of Battleborn because they are filled with heart and sorrow, loneliness and longing. There is a quiet wisdom to Watkins’ writing ... Though the stories are dark and suffused with thwarted desires, they also carry hope. No matter how suffocating the circumstances of each story, Watkins finds a way to offer the reader a breath of fresh air, a moment of possibility to hold onto, and it is those moments of possibility that sharpen Battleborn’s beauty.
The most notable feature of Battleborn, the first story collection by Claire Vaye Watkins, is its physical landscape, especially as it affects the people who stake their claims on its inhospitable terrain ... 'Ghosts, Cowboys,' which opens the collection, can be read as a literary fractal of the book over all. The historical sits comfortably alongside the contemporary, and the factual nicely supplements the fictional ... a dense and haunting story, told in the lyric and associative method of a poem ... Many of these tales share a self-consciousness about the nature of storytelling itself, featuring characters whose interest is in making a narrative out of what is otherwise a mystery ... Whether Watkins casts a backward glance...or a contemporaneous one...her vision is brutally unsentimental. Characters dig themselves into holes — literal or figurative — and are not explicitly rescued. If they survive it’s by the same means as they’ve so far endured: stubbornness, luck and a slim strand of hope ... Readers will share in the environs of the author and her characters, be taken into the hardship of a pitiless place and emerge on the other side — wiser, warier and weathered like the landscape.
What we see in this collection of stories by Claire Vaye Watkins are not only cautionary tales of what we could be (what we are in our sheep’s clothing, if we’re honest with ourselves) but tales of war—between lovers, between family, between friends ... With a strong sense of history and place, an eye for the exact moment where a threshold gives, the momentum carrying downhill, out of our control, and a courageous voice that dares to speak the truth, to show us our imperfections, Claire Vaye Watkins has created a powerful collection of stories that will haunt your memories, remind you of what could be, and show you what it is to be truly alive.
...an exceptional debut short fiction collection by Claire Vaye Watkins. A writer of great precision and greater restraint, Watkins is a natural storyteller whose material enriches that gift rather than engulfing it ... This unblinking exploration of memory and loss also paces the most affecting story of the collection, 'The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past,' originally published in The Paris Review Hope and possibility invade a brothel outside of Vegas, defying both logic and stereotype in the process. But like all things that linger too long under the orange Nevada sun, it cannot last – leading to as memorable a conclusion as I’ve read in short fiction ... Proud and ever-enduring, Nevada now has a book to match its spirit. And one doesn’t have to be from the Battleborn state to recognize and appreciate literature that resonates like this.
Watkins’s acute understanding of place puts her in the company of authors such as Richard Ford and Annie Proulx, writers for whom scenery is an indisputable force that provokes action. But above and beyond setting, Battleborn beautifully locates both the desperation of loneliness and the lengths people go to in order to relieve it.
In fierce and spare language, the stories in this debut collection capture the hunger of the human heart amid the searing landscape of the American Southwest ... Watkins makes these stories seem not so much crafted as discovered, like accidentally talismanic arrangements of wildflowers found on a stroll through a desolate wilderness. Her characters and vivid images spring up, alive, in these landscapes, and they defy attempts to reduce them to their plots — what, after all, is the plot of that meadow? It is remarkable that her origins do not overwhelm her stories.For my part, it leaves me glad of those origins: If this is what it took to produce writing so deeply attuned to its characters, the literary world should be scouring the cults for more like her.
What distinguishes Watkins' work more than place ...is her command of time. Nearly all the stories are set in the present, but her characters constantly live with aftereffects of the past. They're not simply 'scarred' by history; they're irradiated by it, queasily lit from within ... A novel may give Watkins a better canvas for her ambitious thinking about place, memory and history, but Battleborn immediately puts her in league with contemporaries like Charles Bock and Alyson Hagy, who've set perceptive fiction in the new West. It's a place Watkins' characters could more comfortably abide if only they could live more in the present.
It isn’t a stretch to say that anyone familiar with the Manson Family legacy is also wondering how the daughter of Paul Watkins is doing. Battleborn is the answer to that question: she became a storyteller ... As if Watkins’ prose embodies the desert landscape of Nevada itself, the stories are stony, unkind, and harsh, though never unattractive. And as I read through the collection, I kept asking myself why I didn’t find her stories unattractive ... All of [Watkins'] stories left me feeling purged and oddly cleansed, easily making Battleborn one of the strongest collections I’ve read in years.
With the Mojave Desert as her set and vibrant characters as her stars, Watkins’s collection is an almost filmic bricolage of survival in an unforgiving landscape ... each character’s story agitates a specific tension within the mythology of the American West. Battleborn freshly narrativizes the desert frontier as a place where the contemporary runs into the past, honesty meets exaggeration, and fact blurs into fiction.
Watkins has been likened to Annie Proulx, Denis Johnson, and Joan Didion — all appropriate comparisons — but Watkins’s expansive, wrenching prose signals a unique talent ... for the majority of the book, the ominous undertone is offset by prose so original and satisfying that it’s impossible not to delight in the perfect descriptions ... While most of the stories are immediately immersive, a few seem to merely echo the collection’s themes in thinner form ... Perhaps this is apparent because the rest of the works are so powerful and concrete. The emotional resonance of the tales — the sense of struggling to pull oneself up by another person — is mixed with images of crumpled photographs, flakes of gold dust, and blinking slot machines that linger long after the stories end.
...startling, original fiction ... In the opening story, 'Ghosts, Cowboys,' she uses the famous Comstock Lode as a sort of Pandora’s Box whose riches give rise to the state of Nevada and unleash its particular brand of evil and folly upon America, hybridizing this already rich historical material with the sins of her wayward father. She’s just as comfortable describing the woes of a couple dealing with their first child as she is a Vegas trip gone bad. Did I mention the collection includes a sixty-page novella set in 1849? Watkins is the real deal.
Watkins defies the industry’s stringent expectations and traditional MFA pedagogy ... Her images are fresh and clear–not heavily gilded to detract from the moment of despair and loneliness her characters move through in each story ... Watkins explores unrequited love in new and inventive ways ... Each of Watkins’ stories deftly and painfully exposes a universal sense of loneliness that her desert landscape amplifies and echoes. No two pieces are alike in their telling, further magnifying Watkins’ keen ability to wield stories. The next time someone asks me why I’m not writing a novel, I’ll give them a copy of Battleborn, and ask them why they haven’t read it yet.
Location, minutely described, inherently felt, is the unifying force in Battleborn, similar to the way films about the Wild West begin with a panorama of a desert landscape. However, the book is no old Spaghetti. Watkins’s stories are undeniably modern: they portray everyday people in everyday situations, which are often bleak and uncertain ... Reading Battleborn called up in me the exact feeling of standing in the sun with a dry wind whipping my face, looking across the sagebrush at a dark blue storm building majestically on the horizon. This natural element serves as a backdrop for Watkins’s work ... What moved me about the book was the way it captured both beauty and horror and how the juxtaposition of these realms spurs Watkins’s characters toward beautiful and horrific acts.
Ten stories, carefully and lovingly constructed, about Western characters as prickly as barbed wire ... There are two [stories] here that are flat-out outstanding. 'The Archivist' is a spare, unflinching story about the desolation of loss ... Watkins builds a fully formed world in The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past in which a beautiful young Italian boy wreaks emotional havoc on the workers of the brothel he stumbles into by accident. Gloriously vivid stories about the human heart.
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 ... 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 ... 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.