Saturday, March 16, 2013

Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins

Stories from the American desert

I was impressed by the thoughtfulness, the strategy, and the ambition that went into structuring this diverse collection. The unifying element was Nevada – that is, the tension between the lethal desert wilderness and the neon lit Vegas world of whores and gamblers and phony good times. At times there was the occasional hiccup of the cutesy or overly sentimental but most of the time the stories aimed high and delivered high. The cumulative effect was strong, and I liked the collection more as I read through the book. The overall quality of the prose was excellent, and at times extremely powerful.

The best story is “The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past,” which is about a bunny ranch and an Italian kid who’s looking (or not) for his friend who probably died of thirst while the two of them went hiking in the desert. The story proceeded in an unexpected way and I was completely along for the ride wanting to see what happened next.

I wasn’t crazy about the epistolary story or the one about the young mother in “Wish You Were Here.” Those stories didn't surprise me. I liked “Man of War” which was set in the extreme desert and told the story of an old eccentric guy who liked lighting firecrackers and who meets a desperate pregnant teenage girl. There’s a long historical story about the Gold Rush which was a total change of pace. It was well executed, absorbing, although again nothing in it was surprising. The final story, “Graceland,” I found very moving, even though it is not set in Nevada but in San Francisco (another gold rush town).

Eagerly I await the novel.

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