Claire Vaye Watkins
(Riverhead)I have found that it often helps to read a collection of short stories backwards: start with the last story first, then work your way to the beginning. The reason: cagey editors may put the lesser stories at the end, the best at the beginning. But we want to know the author worst as well as the best..
Of the nine stories here, there are two that are outstanding: the very first, "Ghosts, Cowboys," and story #5: "Man-O-War." This last gets under your skin. It is so artfully constructed that you have to do a repeat performance just to see how the author put it together.
It tells of an old miner, Harris, who lives alone way out in the Nevada desert. He finds a run-away girl. She's fifteen, passed out, alone. She is bruised, perhaps from an attempted abortion. Her name is Magda ... Magdalena.
He takes care of her in his shack and feeds her. They go off to a swimming hole he knows of nearby.
She arched her back under the water and pushed herself to the surface again, leading with her sternum, the ruts of her ribs visible beneath the soaked cloth, her nipples tight and buttonish. Drops dripped from her brows, her eyelashes, the tip of her nose, the outcropping of her bottom lip. She gathered her hair in her hand and wrung the water from it.
"'What?' she said, like she didn't know."
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The tension in this one is so perfectly balanced that it becomes the reader's tension. We want Harris to cool it; but --- for all his years alone with his dog --- we also want him to have something, if he wants. And Harris thinks, "Good Lord, sixty-seven years old and behaving like an adolescent." But he's not an adolescent. He is --- how can we capture it? --- he's a good, gentle soul, there alone in the desert.
Not long after this swimming episode, her father --- Castaneda --- appears on the scene, with a .44 ("limp in his palm, as if he only wanted to show it off.") Before he gets her into his truck to take her away, he smiles at his daughter, "rubbed his hand along the back of her neck. It was brief--- an instant --- but Harris saw everything in the way the man touched her. His hand on her bare neck, the tips of his stout fingers along the black baby hairs at her nape, then under the collar of her shirt." Harris "saw all this and more."
Pacing, power, carefully worked tension: Watkins has it all, weaves it all in a 30 page story. When Castanada is ready to take her away, he turns and nods to the rock in Harris' hand. He lifts the gun. "You don't want to take that thought any farther," he says.
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There is one other story that sets this collection apart. And I am not sure, even now, even after reading it several times, whether it is a short story, or just a short piece of self-revelatory journalism.
It's called "Ghosts, Cowboys." It's about a place called "Spahn's Ranch," out in the hills north and east of Los Angeles. In January 1968, writes Watkins, "a group of young people --- most of them teenagers, one of them my father --- arrived at the ranch ... having hitchhiked from San Francisco." The leader was named Manson.
Watkins claims that her mother told her, just before she died, that her --- Claire's --- father was "Charlie's number one procurer of young girls." This story is about one of many producers who come to look Claire up, who want "to have dinner and talk about a film he wants to make about my father, about how he was Charlie's number two in charge..."
She falls in love with this most recent visitor. His name is Andrew. "He asked about my father. I wanted to tell him what I told you, but that's nothing that can't be found in a book, a diary, a newspaper, a coroner's report." Then:
I can tell you the things my father said to lure the Manson girls back to Spahn's Ranch, 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.
Great writing. But what's going on here? Is this the straight stuff, straight reporting? Maybe yes, maybe no. The following note appears on the Library of Congress page, next to the title page:
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.
"Ghosts, Cowboys" is told artfully, but I think I'll have to buy into the publisher's statement: that this is a product of the "author's imagination."
This is a story about a man who existed and who pimped for a famous madman. The author has imagined one of these two characters to be her own father.--- Richard Saturday