Fight and flight 

Watkins' Battleborn challenges the short story

In the short story "Ghosts, Cowboys," author Claire Vaye Watkins writes, "At the end, I can't stop thinking about beginnings," launching both a literary conundrum of a short story and, if the signs point true, a bright career.

"Ghosts, Cowboys" heads up Watkins' debut short story collection, Battleborn. Written while Watkins completed her MFA, the 2012 collection won the prestigious Story Prize in March over the work of authors far better known, including Pulitzer winner Junot Diaz. This month it won the Dylan Thomas Prize. Watkins is so new on the literary scene that, as I write, there's no Wikipedia page under her name. Yet Battleborn's author enjoyed headliner status at events large and small this year, including the Montana Festival of the Book.

So yes, this young author is talented. The question is, what is she doing with all that horsepower? I'm happy to report: good, good work.

Several stories in this collection conduct insightful experiments into storymaking. "Ghosts, Cowboys," for instance, plays not only with endings in beginnings but also with fact in fiction. The most obvious sign of this fact/fiction blending is that the author and her narrator share a name, a father and at least snippets of a history. It's a startling history and one easily explored because unlike his daughter, Paul Watkins does have a Wikipedia page. It explains that for a time he was, like the father in "Ghosts, Cowboys," a trusted follower of Charles Manson.

Another story, "The Last Thing We Need," neatly resolves the most basic dilemma of first person narration. A first person narrator tells her own story, an act which cannot be separated from two questions: why and to whom is she talking? If the writer ignores those questions, the reader has to spend an entire story with a narrator who talks to empty air. If the writer answers them sloppily, the reader is forced to notice, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, that someone behind the curtain is pulling levers. Watkins' solution? Her narrator, a man named Thomas Grey, speaks in a series of letters. And although it's not immediately apparent, he has powerful reasons for writing and for his choice of recipient. As the reader comes to understand these reasons, both Grey and his story sharpen into focus.

click to enlarge Battleborn - Claire Vaye Watkins - paperback, Riverhead - 304 pages, $16
  • BattlebornClaire Vaye Watkinspaperback, Riverhead304 pages, $16

"Rondine Al Nido" is another experiment, to my eye the most strikingly original in the collection. The story opens, "She will be thirty when she walks out on a man who in the end, she'll decide, didn't love her enough..." and then flickers back and forth in time to narrate events as they occur for the character's teenaged self and as they appear looking back from a future that hasn't yet arrived.

Watkins' book takes its title from her home state of Nevada, which calls itself the Battle Born State because it came into being during the Civil War. Watkins makes rich use of the landscapes of her desert home. But in the end, the Nevada connection is less compelling than Watkins' challenges to the short story form or her lyrical style, which is so poetically allusive that her stories seem to accumulate more than progress. A story called "Graceland," for instance, centers on two sisters struggling to cope with their mother's death. Watkins employs a mashup of images—extinct grizzly bears, dehorned white rhinos, migrating humpback whales, a girl in an old postcard and Dumbo the cartoon elephant—to represent loss, loneliness and the hopes, possibly false, that a person must cling to in order to survive.

Between her experiments and her allusiveness, Watkins asks a lot of her reader. Each of the 10 stories in Battleborn forces the reader to create it before she can consume it. Of course, this is always true—a story unread is just marks on a page—but usually a reader can storybuild with little attention since most stories bow to rules the reader knows so well that she barely knows she knows them. Not these. Sometimes, as in "Ghosts, Cowboys," I felt like I was weaving a chain of interlocked moebius strips. Other stories insisted that I fold them into delicate origami cranes.

And now, at the end, while I think about beginnings—and rhinos and Charles Manson and Vegas lights and wine-soaked nights—it seems to me that Watkins' most extraordinary achievement is that she makes storybuilding a beautiful act. After I finished each story in Battleborn I immediately flipped back to the beginning for the chance to feel it accumulate again, like snow, and to fold it again, all snow-white paper, into a thing with wings.

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