Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins

21 Feb

“Have you started reading your book-pick yet?”

This is how my friend and fellow book club member Melis greeted me as I entered my friend Jonah’s launch party for his new website.

“Not yet. Why? Is it bad?” I ask her. This is my second time picking a book for my book club, and both times I’ve been terrified that I’ve selected a dud.

“It’s kind of fucked up.”

“It’s about Nevada!”

“It’s not about Nevada. It’s about fucked up things happening in Nevada.”

My relationship with my home state is fraught with tension. I hated living there. I often felt embarrassed about being from there. Yet it’s shaped a huge part of who I am. And since I’ve left, my nostalgia for that weird place has become bittersweet. I don’t know how it happened, but I reluctantly fell in love with Nevada.

It has crept into my writing as a loaded setting, and a new friend of mine who has been kind enough to read the short stories I’m churning out told me to check out this book. He recommended it not just because of her use of the Nevada setting, but he thought our styles were similar as well.

I was ready to love this book from the moment it arrived in the mail. An initial kudos goes to an incredible title. “Battleborn” is the slogan of the state of Nevada, referring to the fact that we only became a state so that our silver could help finance the North in the Civil War. But it is also an adjective that can aptly describe the characters that Watkins writes about. They come out of poverty. They come out of the desert. They come out of heartbreak. But I don’t agree with Melis’ assertion that it’s about fucked up things. I think it is about unpleasant situations (unwanted pregnancy, sexual assault) in a somewhat gritty place (rundown apartment buildings, whorehouses, desert.)

And I think that’s exactly the kind of thing that I’ve grown to love in my own writing, in the things I read, and in my home state. It’s not the shiny fantasy that the tourist boards from California, Florida, even New York present of themselves. Even Las Vegas, the shining glory of the state drips with seediness. It’s a quirky place that’s hard to understand unless you are from there. But I think the thing that Watkins does that I admire is she is able to bring the reader closer to what life in Nevada is like, making it a character in itself. I also couldn’t help but get giddy as she mentioned so many things that I remember and love. Penny poker slot machines and the Bucket of Blood Saloon, anyone? Above all, it’s fine writing. I savored every sentence, and I felt physical pain as I neared the end. I wanted more. More Nevada. Not enough has been said about that place, but I’m glad that a brave soul is out there bringing it into the conversation.

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