What is left when nothing else is: “Battleborn” by Claire Vaye Watkins.

21book  /// "Battleborn Riverhead" by Claire Vaye Watkins  ///In 1872, Mark Twain published “Roughing It,” chronicling, in his words, “several years of variegated vegabondizing,” some of it involving the silver mining spree in Nevada. In his prefatory to the volume, Twain wrote that silver rush in the state was “a curious episode, in some respects; the only one, of its peculiar kind, that has occurred in the land; and the only one, indeed, that is likely to occur on it.” For a time, the author lived in the mining town of Virginia City, situated in the far west of the Nevada territory, not far from Lake Tahoe. There, in 1863, he first started using his famous nom de plume while writing for a local newspaper. In reviewing “Roughing It” for the Atlantic Monthly, William Dean Howells seemed as fascinated about Nevada—the territory having gained admission to the union only a few years before—as Twain had been: “for all existence [in Nevada] must have looked like an extravagant joke, the humor of which was only deepened by its nether-side of tragedy.”

Reading Claire Vaye Watkins’ debut collection of short stories, “Battleborn”—almost all of its stories are set in Nevada—one wonders if much has really changed, or if Howells was actually as hyperbolic as he seemed to be. Nevada did indeed strike it rich again, although Twain was (generally) right that it wasn’t in silver: after prospecting ebbed, Nevada loosened its divorce laws and legalized gambling, bringing another boom. Yet what Las Vegas has wrought—an economy built on excess—has also arguably brought its downfall. After all, isn’t the Strip the biggest and most extravagant of jests?

Nevada itself, as much as any of the characters, is a focus of “Battleborn” (indeed, the collection’s title is a reference one of Nevada’s own aliases, “The Battle Born State”). Nevada is Watkins’ home, and while it covers locations all over, it refreshingly includes Vegas in only one story (“Rondine Al Nido”). But at least this sole appearance is memorable. “Rondine” is mainly a flashback: a woman looking back at a night she spent a small town teenager, trolling the casinos with her friend, looking simply for, in her words, “fun.” It is perhaps not surprising that, in an ominously set place with “an ever-expanding Ancient Rome” and “a Brooklyn Bridge, its waters strewn with coins,” they don’t find it. Vegas promises nonstop fun—but, in the wake of date rape, eventually causes the protagonist nonstop anxiety and guilt.

There is no place in any of these stories, in fact, to find solace. This seems especially true for Claire Vaye Watkins—at least the semi-fictional version of her—in the most fascinating story of the collection, the autobiographical “Cowboys, Ghosts.” Watkins’ father was a member of Charles Manson’sFamily” (actually his “chief lieutenant,” according to prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi) who turned and ended up testifying against Manson at trial. “Cowboys, Ghosts,” like many of the tales here, is very conscious of itself as a story: “Claire Vaye Watkins” attempts to start telling the story at different times and with different characters (reminding one of David Foster Wallace’s “Octet,” but without the metafictional twists). The fictional Watkins is a desultory wanderer, unable to connect with any human outside of Razor Blade Baby, another woman whose father was an unknown member of Manson’s Family. Unable to move past the times before she was ever born—a clever nod to the many false beginnings of the story—the pot-addled Watkins is, in a different way, stoned.

The real Watkins, on the other hand, is under 30 and rolling forward: she has published in The Paris Review and Granta, took an MFA from Ohio State, and now teaches at Bucknell. With these stories, she shows herself to be an author long ago to have found her voice and her direction. Most of the stories in “Battleborn” are obviously workshop-honed, but others break the MFA mold. Some, even—”Cowboys, Ghosts”—are stellar because they seemed to have long departed from any workshop suggestions.

One of those previously-published stories, now titled “The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past,” previously titled the much simpler “Gold Mine,” was published in the Paris Review. “Past” highlights the best and worst of the collection. In slightly longer, better form in this volume, Watkins evokes the employees of a brothel ranch with aplomb, rounding off all of the prostitutes, as well as the gay “madam,” Manny. A visit by Michele, an Italian tourist whose friend/traveling companion is lost in the desert, does not turn the ranch upside down—as one might expect—but tends to settle the characters in the places they didn’t quite know they were. The worst part about the story is, frankly, the title. “Gold Mine” might have lacked some focus, but also any pretension.

Many of the other stories in “Battleborn” seem ostensibly mistitled, although not the most sensitive in the collection, “Man-O-War.” Harris, a retired miner, finds a girl, Magda, when he was searching a dried lakebed for unused/discarded fireworks the morning after Independence Day. As the nearest hospital is hours away, he eventually takes her in, finding quickly that she doesn’t want to return home. Stuck, more or less, in the house with her, he considers the Nevada desert around him: “A sunset was nothing, Harris knew, dust particles, pollution, sunlight presumed by the slant of the world. Still, it was pretty.” Harris is isolated old man, long without his wife, surrounded by desert and guns, who can’t help but finding the pregnant 16-year-old gorgeous.

“Man-O-War” is only one of several stories to focus on pregnancy. Indeed, three others share the motif: “Wish You Were Here,” “The Archivist,” and “Graceland” all have story-integral pregnancies. “Wish You Were Here” concerns a new mother, who has not quite adapted to changing her Bacchanalian ways; she reminisces, after seeing an old flame, about some youthful hijinks on top of a building: “How did they turn out to be anyone other than who they were on that roof?” “The Archivist” features the miserably pregnant Nat, whose baby’s father says he wants her “seventy percent of the time.” (He then corrects himself: “No. Seventy-five.” As if that makes all the difference. Nat is so unpleasant that we wonder how he even tolerates her that often.)  When she previously had an abortion, Nat declined increased anesthetics: “I told myself it was because I was broke. At the time I mistook suffering for decency.” Faced with another pregnancy, Nat, in deciding she wants to have the child, still tragically confuses the two.

“Graceland,” a more stylistically interesting story—and one that also infuses some of Watkins own past—concentrates on the impending pregnancy of the sister of the protagonist, Catie. The story is filled with strikingly oblique character details: “One of the things I liked immediately about Peter,” Catie narrates, “was that he never leaned on me as though I was a walking stick.” (If only this kind of detail had been in the place of the cliché “Look at me. You’re not her,” which is the reassurance of the three-quarter inamorato from “The Archivist.”)

The anomalous story of the collection is “The Diggings,” a historical novella that instantly seems to be a tamer “The Sisters Brothers,” Patrick DeWitt’s phenomenal old-west yarn. Like “The Sisters Brothers,” “The Diggings” concerns two brothers searching for gold in the latter half of the 19th century, and is told in the first person by the more civil of the two. Here the Twain connections are most obvious. When Twain lived in Virginia City, the rush to strike it rich had taken over, leading to an influx of Chinese miners, a few of whom are depicted in this story (and who constitute its most striking portions). With the Chinese, the futility and tragedy of the desire to strike it rich are the most obvious, and the jokes the cruelest. While it is a fine novella, I suspect “The Diggings” could have been even more effective as a short story.

Everyone in “Battleborn” is battling something (how couldn’t they be?), although more often that something is the nothing that seems to permeate these wide-open, middle-of-nowhere landscapes. “We think of desert as nature stripped to its bare minimum: the absence of everything that could define a landscape as something other than desert,” Geoff Dyer wrote in an essay about the desolate Nevada photographs of Richard Misrach. “The desert is what is left when nothing else is.” Watkins’ characters are often left in a desert-like state, lacking in something fundamental, and so we are glimpsing them after the wind and water and erosion has already left them bare. If it is “an extravagant joke,” then it’s no surprise that none of these characters are laughing.