A variety of strange, exotic things call the Nevada desert home. Rattlers. Bighorn sheep. Big sky sunsets. Area 51. Tumbling sagebrush, flat brown hills. Solitude for many hundreds of miles and emptiness for many more. On one end is Las Vegas, America’s monument to excessive artifice and artificial excess. On the other is Reno, a big town-little city caught halfway between cosmopolitan San Francisco and the mining town of Battle Mountain, both geographically and otherwise. (Battle Mountain was once dubbed the Armpit of America by The Washington Post, though the author later issued a mea culpa). The space between Nevada’s two population centers is known as the Great Basin, a land where only the hardiest somethings and someones endure.
This rich, diverse environment forms the backdrop of Battleborn, an exceptional debut short fiction collection by Claire Vaye Watkins. A writer of great precision and greater restraint, Watkins is a natural storyteller whose material enriches that gift rather than engulfing it. Take the story “Virginia City,” for example. Set in a boomtown turned tourist destination, the friendship of three college students mirrors the moribund trajectory of the town itself, resulting in a loss that no amount of longing – or reenacting – can bring back. “I feel the last three beers resting like silver nuggets in the bottom of my purse,” Watkins writes, her three characters wandering Virginia City’s sprawling cemetery in the hills. “Below us glow the blue-orange flames in the lamps along Main Street. We drink and watch the sun dissolve into the Sierras, and for a small sparkling moment, we are who we once were.”
This unblinking exploration of memory and loss also paces the most affecting story of the collection, “The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past,” originally published in The Paris Review. Hope and possibility invade a brothel outside of Vegas, defying both logic and stereotype in the process. But like all things that linger too long under the orange Nevada sun, it cannot last – leading to as memorable a conclusion as I’ve read in short fiction.
Though she grew up in the small desert town of Pahrump in the southern part of the state, many of Watkins’ stories are set up north, in and around Reno, where she attended college and the place casino magnate Bill Harrah predicted decades back wouldn’t ever be touched by Vegas in terms of commercial appeal. [SPOILER ALERT: Bill Harrah was wrong.] In “The Archivist,” a young Reno woman that hates museums maintains a shrine of objects left in her house by a former lover, all the while deciding whether or not to keep his last forgotten artifact, the one swelling inside her belly. Meanwhile, in “Ghost, Cowboys,” a quiet receptionist rides her bike through the sleepy Reno streets near the river trying to make sense of both herself and the Helter Skelter murders, the past of the former and the legacy of the latter forever intertwined.
Watkins’ skill for painting with words isn’t just relegated to descriptions of the high desert. There’s this passage from “Virginia City” about Tahoe: “Summers we went up to the lake. We swam fifty yards out to the broad flat boulders of Chimney Beach and felt the coarse glacier granite against our bare feet … [we] lay there on the rocks, letting the sun touch us dry.” And this, from “Rondine al Nido,” about the Vegas Strip: “There is a breeze threading through the warm night and a jubilant honking of cars and all those billions of bulbs flashing in time, signaling to the girls that they are, at long last, alive.”
A Nevada native myself, I’ve walked through the same ghost towns as Watkins, driven the same barren stretches of asphalt. As a young boy, on a thin ribbon of highway dotted with wild horses, I asked my mom where the women in tight dresses and makeup were walking to at ten in the morning. A devout Presbyterian from Virginia, my mom said, “Work, honey. Because that’s something we all have to do.” Her words have stayed with me for many years, always returning when my memory drifts west. Proud and ever-enduring, Nevada now has a book to match its spirit. And one doesn’t have to be from the Battleborn state to recognize and appreciate literature that resonates like this.