I’d been hearing about this collection for months and was thrilled to receive it for Christmas. As usual, with collections I’m really loving, I read it too quickly. No matter how I tell myself to leave a break between stories, sometimes I can’t manage it. I considered holding off writing about Battleborn until I read it again, but since I probably won’t do that right away, I figured I might as well write about it now.
Almost every story contained in Battleborn is a stunner. It starts off with this nonlinear, sort of deconstructed tale called “Ghosts, Cowboys” that engages with Watkins own very dramatic life story (her father, who died young, was a member of the Manson Family). It is sensational material told in an almost subtle manner.
My favorite story in the collection is called “The Past Perfect, the Past Continuous, the Simple Past.” It takes place in and around a legal brothel outside of Vegas. The reader learns about the deflated gay man who runs the place, a young woman who works there, and a 20 year old Italian tourist whose traveling companion is lost, and presumed dead, in the desert. There is a lot of disparate material that Watkins winds into the same sad, beautiful story.
“The Archivist” is another contender for my favorite in the collection. The writing is incredible. A woman turns her home into a “Museum of Love Lost,” memorializing her relationship with a man who, by all accounts, was no good for her to begin with; the men who might be good for her–an ex-boyfriend, a new prospect–cycle through the story, trying and failing to draw her into a more functional relationship. The most interesting relationship in the story, though, is between the woman and her sister, who recently gave birth to a child they call “The Miracle.” The story is as much about motherhood as anything else, and it is explored in an unflinching, brutal way.
I think part of what I love so much about these two stories is their boldness–in reading them, I felt like I was fully in a world because they contained threads many other writers would not try to contain in the same short story. It isn’t that the stories were meandering or over-stuffed or incongruous–not at all–they were the opposite of that. But I can imagine coming up with all the ideas that they encompass and fearing that they would; Watkins had the confidence to go for it anyway. She knew all this material belonged together, and so it did.
I also enjoyed a story about two brothers prospecting for gold and an older man who finds a teenager passed out in the desert. There were one or two stories I didn’t think were successful and read like much less mature work–I think I remember hearing that Watkins wrote a lot of this book, if not all of it, while in school, so it would make sense that a few stories might be a little less developed. It is easy to forget about those stories, though, when the rest of the book is so incredibly strong.