Exes is a debut novel told in inter-connected stories all (mostly) set in Providence, RI. The first story introduces us to Clay Blackall, a man who is emotionally lost and directionless, seemingly unable to cope with the death of his brother. Each story has a new narrator, but in between these stories are sections that read like footnotes but are actually Clay’s reaction to the other characters’ stories.
The people who make up Clay’s Providence are artists, Quakers, ex-cons, and mediocre husbands. Each voice is distinct, from Cliff Hinson, an amiable squatter, to Hank LaChance, a recently widowed former hockey player. Winter’s characters each have an undeniable sense of self, which is crucial to making their woven-together stories work. They’re like real people living in a city they feel is still a small town, seeing the same people over and over and gradually becoming each other’s backstory. One story is written as a commencement speech, in which Jake, a character already referenced in several other stories, outlines the way people have come and gone from their school. In it, he is speaking to his classmates and their families, knowing they know everyone he mentions and that they remember the changes the town has undergone. In effect, all the stories work in a similar fashion: when you see the same people your whole life, your stories blend together and you develop a storytelling shorthand because your audience already knows so much of what you want to say. What works so successfully in this novel of multiple narrators is that some of them embrace that shorthand and others ache to be free of it.
Winter’s prose is darkly funny and full of observational asides (see Mark Slepkow’s comments on egg commercials in “Jubilee”). The novel is a moving portrait of grief, from a brother trying to pull together all the pieces of his dead loved one’s life, and of what it means to be part of a community, whether you like it or not.