Joan Didion writes in her essay “The White Album” that the cultural paranoia known as “the Sixties” had ended — or rather been fulfilled — on August 9, 1969. That night, four members of Charles Manson’s “Family” broke into 10050 Cielo Drive and stabbed Sharon Tate Polanski, eight months pregnant, a total of sixteen times. Shortly after, as Paul Watkins and other members of the Manson Family watched a television report of the murders, somebody turned to him and said, “Wouldn’t it be somethin’ if old Charlie did that?”
Paul Watkins had been just out of high school when he joined the Manson Family. He was a former class president with a handsome face, and a smile sweet enough to recruit young girls to the commune. After the Manson murders, Watkins would ultimately testify against Charles Manson. He would outlive the Sixties. He would become president of the Death Valley Chamber of Commerce, appear on CNN, raise two daughters. On his deathbed, he would tape a video for his daughters, beginning with, “Here I am, my girls. I want you to know how much I loved you. I want you to know who I was.”
This is not the story his daughter Claire Vaye Watkins tells in “Ghost, Cowboys,” which opens her sweeping debut story collection Battleborn. Instead, “Ghost, Cowboys” explores the stories from Death Valley as a whole, in which her own family history plays only a small episode.
The narrator begins her story in 1859, when a man named Charles Fuller builds a toll bridge that was to become Reno decades later. Then, the narrator flashes forward to 1941, when George Spahn converts his ranch into a lucrative movie set. And yet again to 1968, when a group of ten hitchhikers offer George to “help” with chores if he gives them permission to “camp out” in the empty set buildings. Two of those ten are the characters Charles Manson and Paul Watkins.
At this point, the narrator reveals herself to be the writer’s fictional namesake. The character Claire Watkins lives alone in Reno after both her parents have passed. She lives a mostly stoned, humdrum life, save for the various movie producers who seek her out for her thoughts on a possible Manson movie. They take her out to dinner, and the dinners often go like this:
“How are you?” they say.
“I’m a receptionist,” I say.
“Good,” they say, long and slow, nodding as though my being a receptionist has given them everything they came for.
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.
We tell ourselves stories in order to live. That line, which opens Didion’s essay “The White Album,” may very well serve as the epigraph for every story in Claire Vaye Watkins’ collection. The stories include a wild teenage girl who drives to Las Vegas with her best friend to find a group of collegiate boys to sleep with; a false prophet who lies to keep from losing his brother, an emaciated 49’er, to gold rush fever; a group of jaded hipsters who roam the deserted graveyards of Virginia City.
Each of these stories, set in a different part of Nevada, feature vagrants — whether traveling to Nevada in search for gold, or attending an out-of-state college — and the shameful stories they tell to themselves and the people they love. 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.
“Rondine Al Nido” confronts the reasons why one is drawn to the dark and the morbid. We’re first introduced to a couple who takes to candle-lit confessions in bed after sex. The man, a former social worker, tells her about the cases he’s seen: the father who made his son live under the floorboards of their porch, the snack bar employee who lured a retarded girl into the men’s bathroom with a lemonade. The woman, a typist, tells him about the terrible things she’s done: the tropical lizards she begged for, then abandoned in a field once she bored of them; the wretched, ring-wormed boy she asked to meet her for a kiss at the flagpole, and how she laughed when he actually showed up.
Beneath these confessions runs a spiritual undertow — that salvific beauty can arise when brutality is brought to light. It’s the same masochistic quality I find in the female gothic writers that precede her, such as Flannery O’Connor, Mary Gaitskill, Alice Munro.
Here, Watkins describes the couple with emotional acuity:
It will be as though she’s finally found someone else willing to see the worst in the world…For the first time in her life, she will feel understood.
While Watkins exposes her characters’ darker moments, she also indulges in the need for cinematic escapism. In “The Past Perfect,” a story previously excerpted in The Paris Review, Watkins tells of a twisted, tragic love triangle.
The story opens with an underage Italian tourist who frequents a brothel as his missing friend starves to death in a desert. As he waits for results from the search teams, he falls in love with an escort, a former gymnast who plays up the “good girl” look amongst her bustier counterparts. Meanwhile, the brothel’s gay “madam” watches their relationship form as he’s unable to prune his own growing feelings for the Italian. All of this is rendered with references to film noir tropes, and the pacing is as entertaining as a Hollywood classic.
Not every story is as gripping. “The Archivist” ultimately gets swallowed up by Battleborn’s more obvious showstoppers. “Wish You Were Here” could easily stand out in a different kind of collection, but following “The Past Perfect,” it feels off-beat. However, the collection does exhibit an ambitious diversity as a result. The final story “Graceland,” which in part explores the suicide of Watkins’ own mother, is quietly devastating in all the ways that “The Past Perfect” is flamboyant. All of her stories left me feeling purged and oddly cleansed, easily making Battleborn one of the strongest collections I’ve read in years.