In ‘Exes,’ We Are What We’ve Lost

Max Winter’s debut is full of backwards, inside-out, and upside down pleasures

If I was to go about describing someone, I’d most likely list a few things that he or she is: short, bearded, kind, devious, a banker, slightly deranged, obsessed with antique armoires, very good at chess, sometimes bad at following directions, etc.

But if that someone is a character in Exes, the stunning debut novel by Max Winter, I would instead have to tell you what they are not. Or what they were, or what they’d lost, or what they are an ‘ex’ of, because Winter knows that often it is in our negative image that we can best understand one another and ourselves.

For instance, there’s Clay Blackall III, who isn’t really the novel’s protagonist, and who really shouldn’t be living in Twinrock, a hundred-year-old, seventeen-room summer cottage in Narragansett Bay. Once, Clay, like the cottage, was fairly well-off. Once he had a brother, Eli, recently deceased after his second car crash into the same house, and whose absence the entire novel revolves around. Clay, who feels his self split in two by the loss, retreats to the abandoned summer cottage, which belongs to the uncle of one of his brother’s exes, a girl named Alix, to try to make sense of it all by looking over the stories of people close to Eli.

“I spread them out,” he explains, “these exes, friends and neighbors. These stand-ins and one-night stands, body doubles and doubles.”

There’s Vince Vincent, an ex-actor, who looks exactly like Judge Reinhold and who almost got the part of Brad Hamilton in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. He now lives his life as not-Judge Reinhold, always acutely aware of the career he doesn’t have, except when he occasionally pretends to actually be Judge Reinhold, as he does when he spends the night with Alix, Eli’s ex.

Another ex of Alix’s is Rob Nolan, another ex-caretaker of Twinrock, who is also an ex-convict. Later we’ll hear from Cliff, who tries to help Rob become an ex-addict. There’s also an ex-high school class president, an ex-Jew, an ex-friend, an ex-foster father… but if this sounds at all exhausting, don’t be led astray.

The Dark Side of the Sunshine State

Winter handles the intricacies of each story masterfully, presenting us with genuinely moving portraits of those who have lost out or come up short. Each lends their own verse, and their own voice, to the unfolding story. Clay interjects between sections with his own footnoted observations.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the best of these vignettes belongs to Alix herself, who describes how Eli fell in love with her (he was her ex-teacher) as devastatingly as she later recounts watching him waste away before her eyes. She briefly ruminates on her ex-friend, Vivian, a performance artist in a women’s art collective called “Polyesther.” Tomboyish Alix says she prefers to think of herself as a garçon manqué, or a “failed boy.” The French, she explains, “can feel the presence of an absence like no one else.” They use the same word, she tells us, for “backwards, inside out, and upside down.”

Winter is a marvelous writer and Exes is a brilliant book, full of backwards, inside-out, and upside down pleasures. Reading his novel is like witnessing a slideshow made out of all the negatives. By which I mean, in the best possible way, that it is unlike anything you’ve ever read before. It’s so finely wrought, so playful, and so readable that you’ll somehow both savor it and speed right through to Clay’s final footnoted footnotes, where the book returns to his search for answers in grief once more.

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