The 10 stories in Claire Vaye Watkins' debut collection, "Battleborn," are set in Nevada and California, and in her hands all that dry air and open space seem designed to provoke bad behavior. What distinguishes Watkins' work more than place, though, is her command of time. Nearly all the stories are set in the present, but her characters constantly live with aftereffects of the past. They're not simply "scarred" by history; they're irradiated by it, queasily lit from within.
The opening "Ghosts, Cowboys" exemplifies this grudge match between then and now. Its narrator is a young Reno woman struggling to articulate her family history. It's quickly clear why she's fumbling: Her father was part of Charles Manson's tribe, and she routinely shakes off film producers requesting scraps of family lore. "I know I ought to try, ought to carry that weight, ought to paint over the past," she thinks, reflecting on her constraint. "But I can only do my best."
Most of the book's lead characters are similarly troubled women: an anxious new mother, a woman drunkenly taken advantage of in Las Vegas, a prostitute at a brothel, a daughter reckoning with her mother's recent suicide. Nat, the narrator of "The Archivist," retreats into an imaginary "Museum of Love Lost," where the main exhibit is the no-good man she still pines for: "An installation of all the clever, evasive text messages he ever sent me, a replica of the bar where we met, handmade dioramas of our finest outings." For her, the fictional museum is a way to numb her heartbreak, but Watkins' use of the device amplifies the emotion.
"The Diggings," the collection's longest story, is something of an outlier, a hypermasculine tale about two brothers set during the California Gold Rush. Yet the same concerns are at play. One brother slowly grows mad thinking about the gold he's sure he'll get and the life he left behind, while the other, who can supposedly predict the future, can only regret the obsession: "The mind is a mine," he thinks. "So often we revisit its winding, unsound caverns when we ought to stay out."
The tragedy of "The Diggings" seems to trickle into the other stories, foreshadowing the emotional greed and dysfunction of the following decades. A novel may give Watkins a better canvas for her ambitious thinking about place, memory and history, but "Battleborn" immediately puts her in league with contemporaries like Charles Bock and Alyson Hagy, who've set perceptive fiction in the new West. It's a place Watkins' characters could more comfortably abide if only they could live more in the present. As a young woman reminds an aging man in one story, "The gold's gone, old-timer."
Mark Athitakis is a book reviewer based in Washington, DC. He blogs at markathitakis.com.