Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins

Even had I not already known the particulars regarding the real-life death of author Claire Vaye Watkins' mother, or how "Razor Blade Baby" got her name, I'm positive Battleborn's opening sentence would've still jolted me.  Claire Vaye Watkins' gallows humor knows no bounds, and even though there's little amusing about suicide or the wild-eyed image of an impulsive Charles Manson abruptly "assisting" in a difficult delivery with a rudimentary scalpel, operating in unsanitary, squalid quarters out at some now long-since-mythologized Death Valley "Ranch," I can't help but laugh, disarmed as I am by Watkins' deadpan delivery.  A delivery that often zips with wit, hooks and puns. Fun puns you don't see coming, ones that wallop you, as in the first (and I think her best) story, "Ghosts, Cowboys," a fictive/autobiographical rumination on beginnings both personal and universal in the history of the wild Wild West.

"The curse of the Comstock Lode had not yet leaked from the silver vein, not seeped into the water table.  The silver itself had not yet been stripped from the mountains, and steaming water had not yet flooded the mine shafts. Henry T.P. Comstock ... had not yet lost his love Adelaide ... who drowned in Lake Tahoe.  He had not yet traded his share of the lode for a bottle of whiskey and an old, blind mare, not yet blown his brains out with a borrowed revolver near Bozeman, Montana.

Boom times."

Excuse me while I see stars and rise slowly off the mat from that sucker punch of knockout prose...

Other times, however, I'm sorry to say, as in "Wish You Were Here," Watkins, rather than booming, is firing blanks.  The story opens sounding more like an outline than polished, crystalline prose.  "It begins with a man and a woman.  They are young ... They fall in love. They marry.  They have a child."  I suppose her staccato style throughout the story conveys an approximation of Marin's disjointed thinking, her confusion and anxiety on the cusp of becoming a mother and how depersonalized, perhaps, her pregnancy is causing her to feel, especially in relation to her husband who, "Before bed -- when once he would have touched her -- he leans down and speaks to her midsection," but the start-stop choppiness of the writing itself, and not just the choppiness of Marin's emotions and interiority, are annoying without relief.  The story, unfortunately, is one of the more irritating stories I've read.  Marin feels (she sure feels an awful lot here) that the new tiny town she and her husband moved to in the desert recently, "with its city traffic whispering like the sea" (and what an unusually pedestrian, uninspired simile for Watkins -- "city traffic whispering like the sea") "tries too hard".  I don't think it's just the town that is trying too hard in "Wish You Were Here."  Thankfully, the majority of Watkins' stories are good enough they needn't bother trying so hard.

Case in point:  "The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past," in which all three delineated vagaries of the story title's "past," seeping out in the sordid lives of the characters employed by, or who manage, the Cherry Patch Ranch, Nevadan outpost of legalized harlotry, mere inches beyond the Clark County line where prostitution remains outlawed, flow and intertwine with seamless ease.

Darla is Michele's favorite delicacy on the Cherry Patch Ranch's "menu".  He's lonesome since his too adventurous buddy, Rienzo, went and walked off alone into a desert state park outside Vegas, where he was possibly tricked into walking just a little further, a little further, by some shimmering mirage of summer's triple-digit wrath materializing on the sand.  Maybe if he'd carried water he'd have come back.  Days later, when Rienzo still has not returned or his body been discovered, despite the diligent efforts of local search-and-rescue teams, Michele, rather than mope around his hotel room or play blackjack in the attached megacasino, arrives at the Cherry Patch.  His Italian suit and accent make the ladies come alive as he enters.  "Pick me, pick me".   Instead, he drinks beer at the bar and Darla saunters over night after night, for a week.  All Michele does is drink, consummating his grief over Rienzo's loss through chit chat rather than a standard, burger-and-fries equivalent, "suck and fuck".

Manny, the brothel's gay manager and bartender, develops a secret but intense crush on Michele, and so lets him sit at the bar all night with Darla rather than insisting he get down to the dirty and proper business of his brothel, like he'd demand of any other patron wasting his precious time schmoozing instead of screwing.   "Army Amy" and her bulging biceps and colossal bosom could probably teach Michele and Darla a trick or two, no doubt envisions making bank with a lucrative mènage à trois, but Darla, wouldn't you know it (and my how Claire Vaye Watkins knows a narrative trick or two, turning her own as she plays some English-usage "pun and games" with the story's title and Michele's limited English usage comprehension) could be turning her most profitable trick ever on Michele, a cruel and platonic trick whose consequences may force Michele into making some forever-life-altering decisions he'd might not have made otherwise had he remained back at the casino awaiting news of Rienzo there.

photo by Alice O'Malley
Other shrewd tricks showcased in Battleborn are equally as nuanced and devastating.  Like the bored, romantic notions that spur two teenage girls into making an impromptu pilgrimage from their humdrum Minnesota town in "Rondine Al Nido" to that dream's oasis, Las Vegas.  To the decadent, megalopolis of the deluded and their delusions that, from an elevated distance miles away, appears like "a blanket made of lights, like light is liquid and the city is a great glistening lake."  A lake of fire. Though in the naive eyes of "Our Girl" (could "Our Girl" be a disguised Claire Vaye Watkins?) and Lena, that lake of fire's nocturnal radiance is paradise awaiting, and not their impending perdition.  For little do our two heroines know that they are in fact about to pass through the gates of hell on earth once they open the doors to New York New York.  Can you blame them that they want to be a part of it, New York New York? Still, it's hard not to cringe watching Our Girl and Lena go down a casino escalator, buzzed and struggling to hold their booze, when they make eyes at four cute guys -- and of course they're angelic imps -- going the other way, up up up.   Uh oh.  Don't go, Girls (I want to reach into the book and stop them), please don't go up like that in your skimpy skirts in awkward flirtatious pursuit (awkward because that's not really them), for these bad cads (don't you know? can't you see?), besides lecherous pigs, could be cons!  Or worse....

Our Girl and Lena soon regretfully realize that despite the iconic and brilliant marketing campaign to the contrary, what happens in Vegas doesn't always stay in Vegas, but follows you home.  Hunter S. Thompson and John O'Brien both nod with great affection at Watkins, because they also know...

Claire Vaye Watkins is an endearing author at home in the literal and figurative desolation existing in rugged deserts and more rugged hearts.   She could just as easily have been the daughter of Edward Abbey as Tex Watkins, so attuned is her soulful bond to the austerity of the eastern Mojave, to its hardy denizens surviving in the fringes of California and Nevada.  When Watkins is on, she's fucking fireworks.  A writer exuberant and beyond exciting to read.  When she's off (which is rare), she's still a lot more interesting than the average fictive fare out there, even if the stories -- the aforementioned "Wish You Were Here" and one I didn't mention, "The Archivist" -- threaten lightning and thunder, but ultimately, it pains me to say, fizzle.  Though maybe those stories will soar and explode off the page for other readers in wonderful ways that eluded me.  Regardless, Claire Vaye Watkins is generally good and going to be genuinely great one day.  I can't wait for her first novel.