December 14, 2012 5:14 pm

Tales from the desert

A powerful collection captures the wonder and weirdness of the American west

Battleborn, by Claire Vaye Watkins, Granta, RRP£12.99/Riverhead, RRP$25.95, 304 pages

 

There’s no getting around the lurid backstory of the gifted young American writer Claire Vaye Watkins. Her father, Paul Watkins, was Charles Manson’s lieutenant, although he did later testify against him in court. She brings up the issue in the first line of her debut collection, Battleborn: “The day my mom checked out, Razor Blade Baby moved in.” Razor Blade Baby is the baby girl, referred to in several Manson family memoirs, who in 1968 was helped into the world by Charles Manson using a sterilised razor as an improvised obstetric instrument.

This first story, “Ghosts, Cowboys”, is autobiographical, so much so that its status as fiction is debatable. The narrator’s resemblance to Razor Blade Baby is often pointed out (“Claire, sweetheart, did you bring your auntie? You look just like her”.) It’s possible they did indeed have the same father – group sex being de rigueur at the Manson ranch. “About once a year, someone tracks me down. Occasionally it’s one of Charlie’s fans wanting to stand next to Paul Watkins’ daughter,” the narrator notes. The story touches on the history of Nevada, the “battle-born” state: the foundation of Reno by a luckless adventurer; the gay architect who took the town upscale, only to burn to death with his lover; and Nevada as a nuclear test site, where the narrator’s mother, aged three in 1962, sees “an orange mushroom cloud” in the distance.

Nevada is a place where the worst can happen and frequently does. “The Past Perfect, the Past Continuous, The Simple Past” begins laconically: “This happens every summer. A tourist hikes into the desert outside Las Vegas without enough water and gets lost. Most of them die.” Despite this, the story is as funny as it is sad; Italian teenager Michele is given a debit card by the police for his living expenses while they search the desert for his lost friend, and spends huge sums at the local whorehouse. Its owner, indifferent to his human merchandise, weeps at any outrage done to his beloved birds, leading to a lovely verbal equivocation: “a courier came out and picked up three sedated chicks destined to roam some movie producer’s estate in the Pacific Palisades.”

Watkins’ narrators are frequently young women, bruised and heartsick. They have the hollow mirthlessness of people who live in a place where other people go to enjoy themselves. Las Vegas may “take you by your ankles, turn you upside down and shake everything from you” – but its residents get no free pass either.

Last month, Watkins won a US National Book Foundation award in the “five under 35” category for this poised debut collection. It is a well-deserved accolade for a coolly impressive new voice of the American west.

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