Stunningly clean and efficient, raw and cruel, this collection of short pieces announces the arresting arrival of Claire Vaye Watkins. Ms. Watkins mirrors the desolation of her suffering, addled denizens with the desolation of harsh, empty Great Basin Nevada. Replete with hardship, haunt, and worry, these stories nevertheless also impress us with the author’s already highly-developed skill with English that cuts directly to the meat of the matter.
The characters populating this collection are indeed born of battle, and for many, life presents the overwhelming sense that they must continue to fight every day. In Ghosts, Cowboys, a young woman traces the effects of a curse that starts with the exploitation and death of prospectors for silver in Nevada, through the poverty and obscurity of a movie-set ranch operator, to the early depredations of the Manson family. The battle has only started for the two teenage girls out for kicks in Rondine Al Nido. It ends in painful loss and gradual estrangement, all with such inevitability. The perhaps ironic title may refer to the lost bond of love between the two girls. In Past Perfect, Past Continuous, Simple Past, an unfortunate young Italian man vacationing in Las Vegas suffers first through the loss of his friend in the desert, and then through the disillusionment of frustrated infatuation with a prostitute. Its wrenching climax crystallizes the man’s pain.
Wish You Were Here features another young woman dealing with an unnamed and bottomless emptiness, which surfaces in her inability ever to hear her infant crying. This woman has no wish to live by the too-restrictive dictates of her husband, and repels the married man with whom they are camping when she tries to proposition him. Man o War contains memorable characters in the retired miner and the young girl he finds unconscious in the desert. It also contains some of the bleakest and most comprehensive descriptions of the (un)natural desert. How about the fictional trope used here, wherein the 67-year-old quasi-hermit shoots off fireworks scavenged from the desert floor, his jaded and manipulative teenage damsel by his side? One of the best in the book.
Ms. Watkins’s apparently effortless shift to a 19th-century style in The Diggings is impressive, as is the story itself. It tells of the desperation, physical as well as emotional, suffered by the color-struck prospectors of 1849 California. Racial prejudice, greed, and insanity all receive full treatment, and the result is a history lesson for anyone interested in the California Gold Rush.
Some stories repeat themes and characters, but this is a quibble. When the treatment is so real, and the problems cut to the bone the way they do, they deserve multiple treatments. I was stunned by the language and transported by the experiences here. This volume is well worth it.