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The American West Exposed

By Claire Vaye Watkins

Riverhead Books, 25.95, 304 pages

This is a stunning debut collection of short stories from Claire Vaye Watkins, whose own dark past (her father was Charles Manson’s right-hand man) bleeds through, particularly in the first story, “Ghosts, Cowboys.” This piece seamlessly blends fact and fiction as Watkins inserts herself as a character (Claire), and examines her father’s sordid history. Claire also establishes an odd connection to someone with ties to her father, the wretchedly named “Razor Blade Baby.” “Battleborn” refers to when Nevada became a state during the Civil War, and it’s an apt phrase for Watkins’ characters, many of whom are battling through bouts of despair or loneliness and are seeking a form of rebirth from their bleak lives.

From abused runaways to frantic fathers to loveless couples, the reader roots for these tormented characters. As Watkins skillfully delves into the everyday lives of locals, she brings to life cities, towns, and regions such as Reno, Pahrump, Virginia City, and the Black Rock Desert. Most compelling throughout the stories is the setting (a character in itself) – the wild and beautiful landscape of Nevada. In “Man-O-War,” a character examines “the valley below [which] seemed to unfurl and flatten like a starched white sheet,” or when watching the sun set, “the sky settled into strata of pale blue atop gold and flame orange and a swath of clouds colored lavender and coral and an indigo so dark they seemed hunks of coal hovering above the range.” Taking an original look at the beauty and mythology of the American West, Battleborn is a breath of fresh air in a crowded genre.

Reviewed By Laura Di Giovine

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