By Claire Vaye Watkins
Literary fiction stories
August 2013 (paperback edition)
One of the reasons I'm drawn to fiction set in the West is that the good stuff, the really good stuff, brings this part of the world to life. It is a vivid, harsh, beautiful place that rarely nurtures but often rewards anyone who can handle it.
Many of the characters can handle it in Claire Vaye Watkins's brilliant stories in Battleborn, which are set in Nevada and Northern California. They just don't know they can handle it until circumstances point it out to them abruptly.
That's certainly the case in "The Last Thing We Need". Thomas Grey, who lives out in the Middle of Nowhere, finds the debris of what may have been a wreck and writes to the man whose name and address he finds on some prescription bottles. Even though he has a wife and two children, he lives mostly with his thoughts. And, because the man he is writing to has not answered, Thomas Grey begins to relay his thoughts.
This is our old joke. Like all our memories, we like to take it out once in a while and lay it flat on the kitchen table, the way my wife does with her sewing patterns, where we line up the shape of our life against that which we thought it would be by now.
I'll tell you what I don't tell her, that there is something shameful in this, the buoying of our sinking spirits with old stories.
On second thought, perhaps sometimes these things are best left by the side of the road, as it were. Sometimes a person wants a part of you that's no good. Sometimes love is a wound that opens and closes, opens and closes, all our lives.
Grey finds out that there is something he cares very much about besides the past. He can handle where he is and what he has.
Other characters need to leave to reach that epiphany. One leaves a brother to his own devices after his sibling is enthralled by something else out in the land where gold was hunted and where gamblers still believe they will come out on top. Another has been depending on her sister and reaches a point where, perhaps, her sister can now depend on her.
Others are not so successful. Not all attempts by the men to be heroic succeed, as one old-time miner discovers. Not all attempts by the women to let go of the past succeed.
For all of them, the men and the women, the ones who thrive and the ones who barely survive, promises matter. In a story, "The Diggings", set during the Gold Rush, a 49'er explains:
A promise unkept will take a man's mind. It does not matter whether the promise is made by a woman or a territory or a future foretold. ... Because though I was afraid and angry and lonesome much of the time, I was also closer to my own raw heart there in the territory than I have ever been since.
©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission