In the first three quarters of 2014, pop culture lost Harold Ramis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Richard Attenborough, Robin Williams and James Garner. Maybe you participated in the ritual of public mourning by talking to your friends about how much the celebrities meant to you, or posted something on social media. Maybe you felt like their deaths were removed from you, but the news brought forth a memory and with it, a reminder that the past isn't coming back.
This nostalgia is at the center of Christian Winn's collection of short stories, Naked Me, published in July. A slim volume, it's one readers can devour in an afternoon, then purchase a copy for a friend, inscribing it with "This made me think of you." In one of Naked Me's stories, "All Her Famous Dead," the central character staggers through the 1997 deaths of Beat writers William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, comedian Red Skelton, Princess Diana, Jimmy Stewart and Mother Teresa. Then her childhood friends, from her hometown of Yakima, Wash., begin to die. One theme is present, though sometimes less pointed, in practically each story in the collection: The past is gone; you can't go home again. The collection glimmers with hope and despair, made more poignant by the characters' realizations that while the world may have changed, they haven't.
"You come to terms with this understanding that you haven't really shifted or changed," Winn said. "Maybe you want some satisfaction for a character. Some of them learn something new. You don't think about it as much until you put the stories together," Winn said.
Interviewing Winn for online literary magazine Fwiction, New York-based author Sara Lippman said the collection's engine is powered by the twin themes of nostalgia and hope.
"For me, what represents this collection: There's this line about craving what has been. It's part of the essential paradox of who we are. The stories operate around that axis," she said.
Naked Me is a mature work of art in most senses of the term. Its subjects include death, sex, drug use, gambling, voyeurism, suicide and theft. In the title story, "Naked Me," the protagonist—a fictionalized Winn—has made a bet with his gambling buddies over whether he can bed the exhibitionist across the alley who stands in her window, stripping and masturbating while he and his pals play cards. In "Rough Cut," a boy watches his best friend get in a fist fight with a Mormon missionary near Fairview Avenue.
There's a lot of youthful indiscretion floating around in this collection, but none of it is treated in a juvenile way. "Naked Me" taps into the difference between having gumption and being brave; "Rough Cut" isn't so much about the novelty of getting into a scrap with a backpacking proselyte as it is about that charismatic friend whose stories straddle the line between fact and fiction. Wizened characters recall the past and young characters look forward to the future, but all of them are searching to be made whole again, whether by reuniting a broken family, rendezvousing with lost loves or meditating on an untimely death.
Nearly every story has a hook, and Winn wraps his tales around lurid, once-in-a-lifetime stuff. In "Dentists," the corpses of oral health professionals float down a canal past the central character's home while he contemplates his failed marriage and the tiny joys of working at a supermarket. "Solstice" recounts a group of drunken friends stumbling upon a decapitated body on the sidewalk. It's not all morbid; some of it's just seedy, like the creepy men who populate the collection's first story, "One Thing to Take."
The hooks are enthralling, sometimes majestically weird or off-putting, and always a story's center of gravity. They're also often the only part of a story that Winn has cribbed from the real world. In the case of "Naked Me," Winn said he started writing with an actual exhibitionist in mind, sneaking a more mundane (though no less riveting) story into orbit around it.
"Something like 'Naked Me,' I thought [the exhibitionist] would be something of a story, but I didn't realize it would be a bet that would drive the story. You get a line or character. You read something in the paper. The stories evolve once you start writing them," Winn said.
What can seem like a sure thing to us one day can be folly the next year, and Winn has a way of imbuing every story with the quality of detached contemplation. As the narrator in "Naked Me" drinks at a house party hosted by one of his students, he sums up his feeling of being lost in himself and the world:
"As my buzz came on I felt old and contemplative as I shifted into an understanding that I'd never know the answers to my life's questions, though sometimes I would believe I did."