December 28: “Graceland” by Claire Vaye Watkins

What’s going on, Story366? Earlier today, I posted the Press Archive for this project, finally finishing it after starting over Thanksgiving weekend, a project I thought I’d knock out in one night, in a couple of hours. Nope. Aside from all the copying and pasting—which has left my left thumb and pointer quite raw—there was a lot of looking up of presses and such, as well as figuring out how the whole thing should look. I think it’s finally right, so if you click that link above (or on the masthead of the site), you can check it out.

I know this is my project and I care about it, as well as tracking it, more than anyone, but I do think it’s interesting to see how things turned out, how many books from each press and how many presses I featured this past year. Some houses with the most books were no-duhs, big presses like Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Knopf, Norton, and Vintage, all well represented as they are all dedicated to publishing great short fiction. I was also not surprised to see so many university presses having long lists, especially those that sponsor contest series like the Flannery O’Connor Award, the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, or the Iowa Short Fiction Award. There’s the two presses I’ve conned into publishing my books, Dzanc and Curbside Splendor, which have been generous, as any time I’ve wanted something , I’ve only had to ask and they’ve sent it right along; Karen got her press, ELJ Editions, to do the same. I’ve also discovered a lot of small presses this year, indies like Braddock Avenue Books, Burrow Press, and Subito Press, presses from which I’ve featured multiple books, all of which were fantastic, all of which I’m keeping an eye on from here on out. Then there’s … okay, I can keep doing this until I relist every press here, but that’s dumb, as that’s why I made the index. Check it out.

In short, though, if you like stories, like story collections, there’s a lot of presses doing those. I haven’t covered every press that publishes short stories collections—for various reasons—but I hope to get to more of them, if not all of them, as I go forward.

Above all else, if you run a press and want me to feature your story collections on this project, send them to me! Message me at FB and we’ll work out the details.

Okay, pitch time over. Today, I had the pleasure of reading from Claire Vaye Watkins‘ collection Battleborn, out from Riverhead Books, a much-celebrated collection that I’d not read before. Battleborn earned Watkins all kinds of awards, included the Story Prize, the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, and got her named a 5 Under 35 Fiction Writer from the National Book Foundation. Where was I when this book came out? Ah! 2012! The year I turned my life upside down and moved across the country and had a kid and started a new job. My life’s black hole, I like to call it, of all things not concerned with those three events. In any case, I’ve read stories by Watkins before and have been aware of her success, and of course, didn’t want to make it through the year without featuring this heralded collection. I got my copy delivered today, in fact, and dove right in, absorbing four stories before other duties called. I’ll be finishing this book for sure, but for this post, I still had to pick just one entry. I really like the opening story, “Ghosts, Cowboys,” but that has some historical ties that I’d have to look into, research, so I’m going to write on my next favorite, “Graceland,” which ends the collection, making for some tight bookends.

“Graceland” is about Catie, the story protagonist who narrates in first-person present. She begins the story by noting how she laments the loss of the large, carnivorous mammals, how there used to be giant creatures that roamed the Earth like killer jackrabbits and armadillos that would eat you as soon as you tried to take their picture. Even now, all the big hunters, or anything big, for that matter, are dying off, leaving the grizzly bear as the largest flesh hunter on the planet. Pretty soon, that will be the human, she fears, as the whales need saving and polar bears are drowning as their glaciers melt. A cool intro to the story and this character by Watkins, as, well, she’s kind of right: That does suck. I mean, unless you’re headed to the Walmart and an armadillo picks you off as you rollerblade past his cave.

The rest of the story isn’t really about this fear, although it’s one of the many anxieties that Catie has that comes up here and there. Part of her fear is due to the fact she’s tiny, just over five feet, and has been the subject of short jokes her whole life (which should mean she wants fewer predators, but whatever, its her anxiety). She’s also reeling from the recent suicide of her mother, whose ashes she’s just scattered on a mountain in Vegas. Recovering from her mother’s death is more or less both the theme and the plot of this story, as we follow this quirky young woman as she tries to deal with it, plus everything else that makes up her life.

Watkins builds Catie through a series of facts, revealed through anecdotes and encounters. We know that she has a particular love-hate relationship with the movie Dumbo (which I think is perhaps the saddest movie ever). She spends a lot of time with her sister Gwen (who is even shorter than her, by the way), both in person and through thinking about her. She has a boyfriend, Peter, a marine biologist, who seems to facilitate her eccentricities. And there’s a particular tie to Graceland, the Paul Simon album from the title—this story is not about Elvis’ estate, but more about Simon’s themes from that album, his quest, his own redemption.

I won’t reveal anything else about the plot, because really, there’s not a traditional plot here, not in terms of rising action and climax and all those other Freitagian points. The story builds its tension and momentum by that aforementioned list of character traits and such that Watkins gives to Catie. Sure, there’s an ending that brings it all together, both physically and syntactically, but the real joy of this piece is just seeing where Watkins takes her hero next, what she has her say or do or pontificate on (primarily the latter). I’ll bet that before her mother’s suicide, Catie was a trip, someone worthy of writing a story about because of all her little habits and fears and obsessions. After her mother’s death, though, all of those things became magnified, we have to assume, depicting a woman who maybe isn’t defined by these characteristics any more, but by grief.

I enjoyed all of the stories I read in Battleborn, Clare Vaye Watkins’ debut collection, a book that has garnered more praise and awards than I can possibly improve upon here. I love what Watkins does in these pieces, how she starts each one in an interesting way, seemingly in another story, another place, but brings everything together, makes it all makes sense. That opening story, “Cowboys, Ghosts,” begins with several anecdotes about characters settling out west, starting in the nineteenth century, working its way to the Manson family (and Watkins herself). Nothing in Watkins work is predictable, nothing that I’ve seen done before. What a great book.

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