Battleborn, by Claire Vaye Watkins. Riverhead Books, 2012. $16, 288 pages.
With the Mojave Desert as her set and vibrant characters as her stars, Watkins’s collection is an almost filmic bricolage of survival in an unforgiving landscape. Watkins’s stories are shaped by the social history of Reno, Nevada, and her characters are the movers, the shakers, and the forgotten—all of whom contribute in their own ways as well as collectively to the chaotic, tenacious spirit of the West. Watkins starts the book with a brief account of Reno’s earliest history: “Boom times in the western Utah Territory” when “Americans still had the brackish taste of Sutter’s soil on their tongues, ten-year-old gold still glinting in their eyes.” Through various adventures and misadventures, her characters earn redemption amid the pain and hardships people must endure in this harsh setting. From Reno’s early history to its present, we see a cross-section of life in the Mojave, the voices so strong that they seem to endure in the dry heat, contributing to the authentic pioneer spirit that Watkins evokes. From a working girl at a brothel in “Past Perfect, Past Continuous, Simple Past,” and a young girl dreaming of the lurid glow of Las Vegas in “Rondine al Nido,” to the intimate piece inspired by Watkin’s father, a Charles Manson follower, in “Ghosts, Cowboys”—each character’s story agitates a specific tension within the mythology of the American West. Battleborn freshly narrativizes the desert frontier as a place where the contemporary runs into the past, honesty meets exaggeration, and fact blurs into fiction.