The extraordinary debut collection from the Guggenheim Award-winning author of the forthcoming Gold Fame Citrus
Winner of the 2012 Story Prize
Recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters 2013 Rosenthal Family Foundation Award
Named one of the National Book Foundation's "5 Under 35" fiction writers of 2012
Winner of New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award
NPR Best Short Story Collections of 2012
A Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, and Time Out New York Best Book of the year, and more . . .
Like the work of Cormac McCarthy, Denis Johnson, Richard Ford, and Annie Proulx, Battleborn represents a near-perfect confluence of sensibility and setting, and the introduction of an exceptionally powerful and original literary voice. In each of these ten unforgettable stories, Claire Vaye Watkins writes her way fearlessly into the mythology of the American West, utterly reimagining it. Her characters orbit around the region's vast spaces, winning redemption despite - and often because of - the hardship and violence they endure. The arrival of a foreigner transforms the exchange of eroticism and emotion at a prostitution ranch. A prospecting hermit discovers the limits of his rugged individualism when he tries to rescue an abused teenager. Decades after she led her best friend into a degrading encounter in a Vegas hotel room, a woman feels the aftershock. Most bravely of all, Watkins takes on – and reinvents – her own troubled legacy in a story that emerges from the mayhem and destruction of Helter Skelter. Arcing from the sweeping and sublime to the minute and personal, from Gold Rush to ghost town to desert to brothel, the collection echoes not only in its title but also in its fierce, undefeated spirit the motto of her home state.
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Claire Vaye Watkins is the author of Battleborn, winner of the Story Prize, the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a Silver Pen Award from the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame. Battleborn was named a Best Book of 2012 by the San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Time Out New York and Flavorwire, and a Best Short Story Collection by NPR.org. In 2012, the National Book Foundation named Claire one of the 5 Best Writers Under 35. Her stories and essays have appeared in Granta, One Story, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, Best of the West 2011, Best of the Southwest 2013, and elsewhere. A graduate of the University of Nevada Reno and the Ohio State University, Claire has received fellowships from the Writers’ Conferences at Sewanee and Bread Loaf. An assistant professor at Bucknell University, Claire is also the co-director, with Derek Palacio, of the Mojave School, a free creative writing workshop for teenagers in rural Nevada.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The day my mom checked out, Razor Blade Baby moved in. At the end, I can’t stop thinking about beginnings.
The city of Reno, Nevada, was founded in 1859 when Charles Fuller built a log toll bridge across the Truckee River and charged prospectors to haul their Comstock silver across the narrow but swift-moving current. Two years later, Fuller sold the bridge to the ambitious Myron Lake. Lake, swift himself, added a gristmill, kiln and livery stable to his Silver Queen Hotel and Eating House. Not a bashful man, he named the community Lake’s Crossing, had the name painted on Fuller’s bridge, bright blue as the sky.
The 1860s were boom times in the western Utah Territory: Americans still had the brackish taste of Sutter’s soil on their tongues, ten-year-old gold still glinting in their eyes. The curse of the Comstock Lode had not yet leaked from the silver vein, not seeped into the water table. The silver itself had not yet been stripped from the mountains, and steaming water had not yet ?ooded the mine shafts. Henry T. P. Comstock—most opportune of the opportunists, snatcher of land, greatest claim jumper of all time—had not yet lost his love Adelaide, his ?rst cousin, who drowned in Lake Tahoe. He had not yet traded his share of the lode for a bottle of whiskey and an old, blind mare, not yet blown his brains out with a borrowed revolver near Bozeman, Montana.
Lake’s Crossing grew. At statehood in 1864, the district of Lake’s Crossing, Washoe County, was consolidated with Roop County. By then, Lake’s Crossing was the largest city in either. The curse, excavated from the silver vein and weighted by the heavy ore, settled on the nation’s newest free state.
Or begin the story here: In 1881 Himmel Green, an architect, came to Reno from San Francisco to quietly divorce Mary Ann Cohen Magnin of the upscale women’s clothing store I. Magnin and Company. Himmel took a liking to Reno and decided to stay. He started designing buildings for his friends, newly rich silver families.
Reno’s Newlands Heights neighborhood is choked with Green’s work. In 1909, 315 Lake Street was erected. A stout building made of brick, it was one of Himmel’s ?rst residential buildings, a modest design, small porch off the back, simple awnings, thoroughly mediocre in every way. Some say construction at 315 Lake stirred up the cursed dust of the Comstock Lode. Though it contaminated everyone (and though we Nevadans still breathe it into ourselves today), they say it got to Himmel particularly, stuck to his blueprints, his clothing, formed a microscopic layer of silver dust on his skin. Glinting silver ?lm or no, after his divorce was ?nalized Himmel moved in with Leopold Karpeles, editor of the B’nai B’rith Messenger. Their relationship was rumored a tumultuous one, mottled with abuse and in?delity. Still, they lived together until 1932, when the two were burned to death in a ?re at Karpeles’s home, smoke rising from the house smelling like those miners boiled alive up in Virginia City mine shafts.
Or here. Here is as good a place as any: In March 1941, George Spahn, a dairyman and amateur beekeeper from Pennsylvania, signed over the deed to his sixty-acre farm to his son, Henry, packed four suitcases, his wife, Helen, and their old, foul-tempered calico cat, Bottles, into the car, and drove west to California, to the ocean.
He was to retire, bow out of the ranching business, bury his tired feet in the warm Western sand. But retirement didn’t suit George. After two months he came home to their ticky-tacky rental on the beach and presented Helen with plans to buy a 511-acre ranch at 1200 Santa Susana Pass Road in the Santa Susana Mountains. The ranch was up for sale by its owner, the aging silent-?lm star William S. Hart.
The Santa Susana Mountains are drier than the more picturesque Santa Monica Mountains that line the California coast. Because they are not privy to the moist winds rolling in off the sea, they are susceptible to ? res. Twelve hundred Santa Susana Pass Road is tucked up in the Santa Susanas north of Los Angeles, off what is now called the Ronald Reagan Freeway. Back in 1941, when George was persuading Helen to move again, taking her knobby hand in his, begging her to uproot the tendrils she’d so far managed to anchor into the loose beige sand of Manhattan Beach—Just a bit east this time, sweet pea—the city of Chatsworth was little more than a Baptist church, a dirt-clogged ?lling station, and the Palomino Horse Association’s main stables, birthplace of Mr. Ed. Years later, in 1961, my father, still a boy, would start a wild?re in the hills above the PHA stables. He would be eleven, crouched in the dry brush, sneaking a cigarette. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
At the heart of the ranch was a movie set, a thoroughfare of a Western boomtown: bank, saloon, blacksmith, wood-planked boardwalk, side streets and alleys, a jail. Perhaps the set dazzled Helen. Perhaps she—a prematurely arthritic woman—recalled the aching cold of Pennsylvania winters. Perhaps she spoiled her husband, as her children claim. Whatever the reason, Helen laid her hand on her husband’s brow and said, “All right, George.” And though by all accounts Helen came to like the ranch, on the day George took her out to view the property for the ?rst time her journal reads:
The property is quite expansive, surrounded by mountains.
G. giddy as a boy. Not such a view as the beach, though. The road out is windy and narrow, sheer canyon walls on either side. Seems I am to be once again separated from the sea. And what a brief affair it was! Looking west I felt a twinge like something had been taken from me, something a part of me but never truly mine.
Within a week of the Spahns’ move up to 1200 Santa Susana Pass Road, Bottles the cat ran away.
But George was more adaptable than Bottles, and luckier. In 1941, Westerns were still Hollywood’s bread and butter. George ran his movie set like he’d run his dairy ranch, building strong relationships with decision makers, underpricing the competition. It certainly didn’t hurt business when Malibu Bluff State Recreation Area annexed Trancas Canyon and sold off its many sets, making Spahn’s Ranch the only privately owned—and therefore zero-permit—outdoor set for seventy-?ve miles. The Spahns enjoyed a steady stream of business from the major studios, charging them a pretty penny to rent horses and shoot ?lms at the ranch, among them High Noon, The Comstock Boys, and David O. Selznick’s 1946 classic Duel in the Sun, starring Gregory Peck. TV shows were also shot at the ranch, including most episodes of The Lone Ranger and—before Warner Brothers, coaxed by Nevada’s tax incentives and the habits of its big-name directors, moved production to the Ponderosa Ranch at Lake Tahoe—Bonanza.
We might start at my mother’s ?rst memory: It’s 1962. She is three. She sits on her stepfather’s lap on a plastic lawn chair on the roof of their trailer. Her older brother and sister sit cross-legged on a bath towel they’ve laid atop the chintzy two-tab roof, the terry cloth dimpling their skin. They each wear a pair of their mother’s—my grandmother’s—oversize Jackie O. sunglasses. It is dusk; in the eastern sky stars are coming into view—yes, back then you could still see stars over Las Vegas—but the family faces northwest, as do their neighbors and the teenage boys hired to cut and water the grass at the new golf courses and the city bus drivers who have pulled over to the side of the roads and the tourists up in their hotel rooms with their faces pressed to the windows. As does the whole city.
Their stepfather points to the desert. “There,” he says. A ?ash of light across the basin. An orange mushroom cloud erupts, rolling and boiling. Seconds later, she hears the boom of it, like a ?rework, and the trailer begins to sway. Impossibly, the heat warms my mother’s face. “Makes you think,” her stepfather says softly in her ear. “Maybe there’s something godly out there after all.”
The blast is a 104-kiloton nuclear explosion. It blows a hole into the desert rock, creating the deepest crater of all the Nevada Test Site’s 1,021 detonations: 320 feet deep. The crater displaces seven hundred tons of dirt and rock, including two tons of sediment from a vein of H. T. P. Comstock’s cursed soil, a ?nger reaching all the way down the state, now blown sky-high in the blast. The July breeze is gentle, indecisive. It blows the radiation northeast, as it always does, to future cancer clusters in Fallon and Cedar City, Utah, to the mitosing cells of small-town downwinders. But today it also blows the curse southeast, toward Las Vegas, to my mother’s small chest, her lungs and her heart. And it blows southwest, across the state line, all the way to the dry yellow mountains above Los Angeles. These particles settle, ?nally, at 1200 Santa Susana Pass Road.
We might start with George’s longest year: For nearly twenty years, George’s letters to his son, Henry, back home in Pennsylvania were characteristically dry, questions about herd count, tips for working the swarm at honey harvest; he hardly mentioned his own ranch, which to his son would not have seemed a ranch at all.
But by the early 1960s the demand for Westerns began to wane and George Spahn blamed, among others, Alfred Hitchcock. He increasingly ended his notes about farm business with aggravated rants about “cut-’em-ups,” and“ sex-crazed” moviegoers’ ?xation on horror ?lms, probably meaning Hitchcock’s Psycho, the second-highest-grossing ?lm of 1960, after Swiss Family Robinson. On the ?rst day of February 1966, George Spahn ?led for bankruptcy. By then, unbeknownst to George, his wife’s kidneys were marbled with tumors. Six weeks later, at UCLA Medical Center, Helen died from renal failure on the same ?oor where my father would die thirty-four years later. The coroner’s report noted that her tumors were visible, and in the glaring light of the microscope seemed “like hundreds of hairlike silver ribbons.”
After Helen’s death, George neglected the few already tenuous ties he had at the big studios. He wrote Henry often, spoke of the ranch deteriorating, of weeds pushing up through the soil in the corrals.
“I’m tired,” he wrote to his son on July 23, 1966. “Let most everyone [three part-time ranch hands] go. It is hot here. So hot I have to wait for dusk to feed the horses. They get impatient down in the stalls and kick the empty troughs over. Boy, you wouldn’t believe the noise of their hoofs against the metal . . .”
In the end it was the horses, thirsty or not, that kept Spahn’s Ranch a?oat. Spahn rented the horses to tourists for self-guided rides through the hills. Occasionally, a few of George’s old studio friends would throw business his way, sending for six or eight paints when a scene couldn’t have needed more than two. And so the horses became George’s main source of income, meager as it was. The Los Angeles County tax records show Spahn’s annual income in 1967 to be $13,120, less than a quarter of what it was in 1956.
In previous letters, George rarely wrote of Helen. When he did his lines were terse, referring to her only along with other ranch business: “Storm coming in. Your mother’s knuckles would have swelled. Lord knows we need the rain.”
That year, George continued to write even as his eyesight failed, his lines sometimes piling atop one another. He began to write of Helen more frequently, sometimes devoting an entire page to her blackberry cobbler or the fragrance of her bath talcum. These are the only letters in which George, otherwise a deliberate and correct writer, slips into the present tense.
In September, George reported discovering a tiny bleached skull in the hills above his cabin. “Bottles,” he wrote, “picked clean by coyotes.”
Or here. Begin here: When a group of about ten young people—most of them teenagers, one of them my father—arrived at the ranch in January of 1968, having hitchhiked from San Francisco, George was nearly blind. Surely he smelled them, though, as they approached his porch—sweat, gasoline, the thick semisweet guff of marijuana. The group offered to help George with chores and maintenance in exchange for permission to camp out in the empty facaded set buildings. Though he’d broken down and hired a hand a couple weeks earlier—a nice kid, a bit macho, went by “Shorty,” wanted to be, what else?, an actor—George agreed, perhaps because he wouldn’t have to pay them. Or perhaps because the group’s leader—a man named Charlie—offered to leave a young girl or two with George twenty-four-seven, to cook his meals, tidy the house, keep up with the laundry, and bed him whenever he wanted.
My father didn’t kill anyone. And he’s not a hero. It isn’t that kind of story.
Nearly everyone who spent time at Spahn’s that summer wrote a book after it was over, Bugliosi’s only the most lucrative. We know, from the books of those who noticed, that a baby was born at Spahn’s Ranch, likely April ninth, though accounts vary. In her version, Olivia Hall, who’d been a senior at Paci?c Palisades High School and an occasional participant in group sex at the ranch, wrote of the birth: “The mother, splayed out on the wood ?oor of the jail, struggled in labor for nearly fourteen hours, through the night and into the early morning, then gave up.” In The Manson Murders: One Woman’s Escape, Carla Shapiro, now a mother of four boys, says the struggling girl “let her head roll back onto a sleeping bag and would not push. Then Manson took over.” My father’s book reads, “Charlie held a cigarette lighter under a razor blade until the blade was hot and sliced the girl from vagina to anus. ”The baby girl slipped out, wailing, into Charlie’s arms. My father: “The place was a mess. Blood and clothes everywhere. I don’t know where he found the razor blade.”
Charlie had a rule against couples. The group had nightly orgies at the ranch and before it in Topanga, Santa Barbara, Big Sur, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Oakland, San Francisco, the list goes on. You know this part, I’m sure. The drugs, the sex. People came and went. Tracing the child’s paternity was impossible, even if the group had been interested in that sort of thing. “There was a birth, I know that,” Tex Watson wrote to me from prison. “Hell, might’ve been mine. But we were all pretty gone, you know?”
Of the mother, the accounts mention only how young she was. No name, no explanation of how she came to the ranch. One calls her “dew-faced.” In his account my father admits to having sex with her on several occasions. He says, “She was a good kid.”
After police raided Spahn’s on August sixteenth, California Child Protective Services placed the baby with foster parents, Al and Vaye Orlando of Orlando’s Furniture Warehouse in Thousand Oaks. Vaye constantly fussed over the baby, worried at her calmness, what she called “a blankness in her face.” During the child’s ?rst ?ve years, Vaye had her examined for autism seven times, never trusting the results. She even hired a special nanny to play games with the child, encourage her cognitive development. Al thought this a waste of money.
Now the baby is a grown woman, forty. She is slender but not slight, and moves like liquid d...
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