Thursday, September 11, 2014

Full-Frontal Fiction: Naked Me by Christian Winn

What does a wife's skin feel like under bathtub water?  Like rubber or hard-boiled eggs.

What does Puget Sound smell like in the summer?  Coppertone and grease.

How does it feel to be a single thirty-year-old woman in 1997, the year all the celebrities died?  Broken and haunted and lonely and mortal.

These may seem like random, insignificant things, but as any lover of short fiction can tell you, these small pointillistic details add up to make a deep, large portrait in a tiny frame.  Short story writers only have a reader's attention for a limited time and space, so they better make sure those stippled dots of paint are vivid and indelible.

In his debut collection, Naked Me, Christian Winn does a superb job of making sure we remember his people and places--not only in the examples I cited above, but in stories that show us what it's like to have sex with a desirable women while a balcony full of your friends voyeurs your intimacy from across the street (further complicating matters: you used to be one of those balcony-oglers and you're in the woman's apartment on a bet); or what it's like to be on the losing end of a fistfight with a Mormon; or what it's like to be a teenager whose best friend's mother is going cuckoo.

This latter story, "The Dirtiest Hamburger in the World," captures the world of a teenager in a way that would make John Green (or S. E. Hinton or Judy Blume) jealous.  Here's how it begins:
It was the first week of July when Drew came over at 9 a.m., told me his mother was hunched in her bedroom closet pretending she was a rabbit.  He said she was eating a Pop-Tart with tiny buck-toothed bites.  He wanted it to be funny, but I know he was scared.  We were fourteen.
Set in 1980, the story absolutely nails adolescence to the wall, reminding the adult me what it was like to be a teenager just starting to come into his own as a person--caught without a map in the twilight world between child and adult.  The boys in "The Dirtiest Hamburger in the World" have a lot of time on their hands since Drew, a star pitcher, quit the summer league baseball team in solidarity with Bradley (the story's narrator) who'd just been kicked off by their temperamental coach.  The two roam "the hidden folds" of their mid-sized California town, scavenging a switchblade, a bag of dope and a box of old Playboys.  They also find the titular hamburger, a ten-foot plastic thing with a "giant yellow bun," charred-black patty, and "unreal bright green" lettuce.  In a parking lot behind Ling's Chinese Restaurant and the Tip Top Tavern, the burger is "just sitting there dusty and covered with leaves."  They hang out on the burger, smoke stolen cigarettes and try to defend their territory from older bullies.  The story is sweet, tough-as-nails, and ultimately very sad.  I loved it.

I'm also extremely fond of "Where He's Living Now," in which a thirty-year-old son tries to reconnect with his distant, widowed father.  They try to get past their strained banter and bond over golf, club sandwiches and a Padres game.  But it isn't until they play a game of Scrabble with a friend and his wheelchair-bound son that they really connect.  "Where He's Living Now" might just put a lump in your throat.

In "Mr. Formal," twenty-one-year-old Stephen is trying to sort out his life in the wake of his parents' messy breakup.  Stephen works at a tuxedo shop in Boise, Idaho, where he's moved to be with his father.  At the tux store, he suffers from ennui ("fallout-shelter-type bored"), but hey, "at least I worked at the Broadway store, and not at the mall where horny high school dudes with their wispy mustaches and stringy, mullety hair--endlessly lining up to pay good money for a rented outfit they assumed, along with dinner at Johnny Carino's, would get them laid."  Like "Where He's Living Now," "Mr. Formal" ends on a sweet note of paternal love.  At a party, Stephen picks up a one-night stand--a redhead named Shasta.  They break in to Mr. Formal, make love in the back room, then dress themselves in tuxedos and go to Stephen's house to drunkenly show off their duds.  When they get there, though, they spy Stephen's father through the dining room picture window.  He's ballroom dancing with himself:
      As Dad reached for the wine glass and brought it to his lips he saw us, and froze--maybe scared? embarrassed? sweetly elated?
      "He's had a couple."  I quietly waved to my father.
      "So have we," Shasta said, and a tingle sped through me.
      In a round, muffled tone I heard him through the window: "Stephen!  My boy!  I'm dancing, dancing!"  He foxtrotted toward the window, spun again, tiptoed, twirled, wine glass still in hand.
      "Who is this?!" he said, pointing.
      "Dad," I yelled, pointing back at him, then at the pretty girl on my arm.  "This is Shasta."
      "Yes it is!"
      "You're a great dancer," Shasta said.  "You really are!"
      He shuffled slowly, gracefully to the window.  "So be it," my father said, leaning his forehead against the glass, rattling the still night air.  He looked peaceful, content to be seeing me like that, and I was happier for him than I had been in years, maybe happier than I would ever be again, as he pulled away, rubbed his dark chin-stubble, studying us.
      "You're looking pretty good there, Dad!"
There are so many fine moments like this throughout the book.  The stories are emotionally uncompromising in their approach and paint vivid worlds in which we may, on occasion, see ourselves staring back from the page.  This is full-frontal fiction: Christian Winn strips away all the layers that form a barrier between words and our hearts.

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