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By Claire Vaye Watkins. Riverhead, $26.
Anyone who knows Nevada as “The Battle Born State” will understand immediately that Claire Vaye Watkins’s debut story collection is about environment. The people Watkins writes about aren’t just characters, they’re inhabitants of a landscape. Events don’t simply transpire in a convenient locale, they’re spurred by the dry heat or stimulated by the encroaching desert. The commanding setting, as portrayed by Watkins, is the book’s ubiquitous central figure.
The stories in Battleborn take many forms: a sequence of yearning epistles sent to a man whose belongings were abandoned on the roadside; a heartbroken young woman imagining a series of plaques that catalog her breakup as though it were a museum exhibit; and in one of the few stories set outside of Watkins’s home state, a genre fable about the 1849 California gold rush and its attendant “gold fever.” Watkins also addresses what might be the elephant in the room for history buffs and/or creeps—her father’s involvement with Charles Manson—with a seemingly autobiographical story that finds a fictional Claire fending off the advances of a Hollywood producer.
Watkins’s acute understanding of place puts her in the company of authors such as Richard Ford and Annie Proulx, writers for whom scenery is an indisputable force that provokes action. But above and beyond setting, Battleborn beautifully locates both the desperation of loneliness and the lengths people go to in order to relieve it. In the knockout story of the collection, “Rondine al Nido,” a young woman recounts the chilling role she played in a friend’s emotional collapse. Though sacrificing friendship helps Watkins’s narrator escape the orbit of her surroundings, she will always be haunted by them.