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.
Set largely in the Mojave Desert and Death Valley region that straddles the California/Nevada border, Watkins’ stories span from the Gold Rush to the present, from Reno and Las Vegas to San Francisco and ghost towns in between. They map a regional portrait while pausing for detailed sketches, with a strong perspective that blends the romanticized past of Larry McMurtry, heartbreaking characters of Annie Proulx, and bleak timeless landscapes of Cormac McCarthy. Like many writers of the region before her, she doesn’t see Las Vegas as a glitzy, glamorous haven, but as a cesspool of innocence lost and an oasis in the middle of a harsh, seemingly endless wasteland.
Watkins’ stories crackle with tension in the desert heat. An elderly man rounding up unused fireworks on the 5th of July finds a young girl suffering from heatstroke in “Man-O-War” and resuscitates her at his home, the only structure around for hours. As the two bond, he realizes she’s pregnant, and as the details slowly become more apparent, Watkins heightens the pressure, as if tightening a guitar string that’s ready to snap at any moment.
The plots of each story are inventive and irresistible. An Italian tourist waiting for news of a friend who went missing on a hike becomes a constant patron of a brothel. Two young girls act of age and get more than they bargained for when they leave their podunk hometown behind for a night on the Strip. Two brothers methodically pan for gold as one befriends Chinese immigrants and the other goes mad with greed. 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. A few involve pregnancy or abortion, while others are full of the typically aimless wandering of twentysomethings that tend to pop up frequently in debut collections. 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.