BATTLEBORN: Stories, by Claire Vaye Watkins. Riverhead Books, 304 pp., $25.95.
Claire Vaye Watkins grew up in Death Valley. Her father, Paul Watkins, lived with Charles Manson at the Ranch and was his right-hand man, procuring young girls from Pacific Palisades High School (and elsewhere) in the late 1960s to feed the Manson machine. Her mother committed suicide. Bleak.
So what should Watkins write about? The stories in her debut collection, "Battleborn," are riddled with desperate, sad, abandoned people. All of them lose their innocence too early. Many of them have one eye on the horizon; some have found something simple to love -- peacocks, a dog, a landscape.
The first and more obviously autobiographical story, "Ghosts, Cowboys," begins with a brief history of Reno, moves to the ranch that George and Helen Spahn purchased in 1941, to the testing of nuclear missiles in the desert in 1960 and on to the arrival of Manson & Company in 1968. Manson is one tawdry footnote in history, and Watkins' telescope helps us feel a little bit better about things. Time marches on.
The problem is, it also circles back. Shock waves reverberate through lives, including Watkins' own. "I can tell you the things my father said to lure the Manson girls back to Spahn's Ranch," explains the narrator of "Ghosts, Cowboys," "but I can't say whether he believed them. I can tell you the length and width and number of the cuts on my mother's wrists, and the colors her skin turned as they healed, but I couldn't say whether she would do it again, or when. Everything I can say about what it means to lose, what it means to do without, the inadequate weight of the past, you already know."
In "Rondine Al Nido," we watch a young girl's heart harden before our very eyes. In "The Last Thing We Need" we see a moment of possible redemption pass carelessly by, like a leaf in the river of pain. In "The Past Perfect, the Past Continuous, the Simple Past," a young man with plenty of potential for love sours into violence.
Watkins knows how she is making her readers feel. "It was disorienting," a sister writes of the changes in her sibling's personality after their mother dies, "gave me the feeling you get when you wake up from a nap and the sky isn't black or blue but hazy gray, and you can't tell whether it's five a.m. or five p.m., can't tell how long you've been asleep."
The sky isn't blue in these stories; it's gray. Death Valley is not a metaphor; it's a landscape. Trauma begets trauma. These characters are drawn to their own destruction. Like the tall, unstable towers that came crashing down on 9/11, thinks a girl on the brink of evil in "Rondine Al Nido," they "hunger for ruin."