In Praise of Frederick Exley

by Thad Weitz on March 28, 2013

in ESSAYS, IN PRAISE OF..., REVIEWS

Frederick ExleyIn honor of what would have been the 84th birthday of American literary cult  icon, Frederick Exley,  Thad Weitz shares a review he originally wrote for Traffic East Magazine of Exley’s masterpiece A Fan’s Notes. Nearly 50 years since its publication, A Fan’s Notes  remains an astonishing meditation on broken dreams and the struggle to just hold on. TS

I cannot remember ever having been so blindsided by a writer I didn’t know, as I was when a friend lent me a copy of A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley. Published in 1968, the book is more lauded by a cult following than recognized as a Great American Novel, which it most definitely is—sort of.  Frederick Exley writes of the misadventures of a character who simultaneously amuses, confounds, enrages, and saddens him.  This character is himself.  Though he asks to be “judged as a writer of fantasy,” the story he tells is unquestionably his autobiography.  And what a funny, strange, and heartbreaking autobiography it is.  While most authors, in writing their life story, can explain how their decisions shaped a certain life trajectory, Exley seems to have no agency over his own life. Bewildered, he cannot fathom his actions in the past, and writes of himself as if he were discussing a mad stranger (which, at times, isn’t far off the mark).  In an exquisite and fluid prose, Exley attempts to analyze why he is who he is.  By the end of the novel,  he has come to understand, tentatively, the stranger within.

 Though he has already experienced many long bouts of paralytic navel-gazing, the real catalyst for his self-examination is a supposed heart attack, at the age of thirty-two, on a Sunday afternoon in a Watertown, New York barroom.  Not a heart attack, he explains, the “‘seizure’…was brought on by the high and delicious anxiety I always experienced just prior to a Giant’s game, and by a weekend of foodless, nearly heroic drinking.  For me it was a common enough drinking; but the amounts consumed had been intensified by the news, received by mail from Scarsdale two days before, that my wife intended to divorce me and to have custody of my two-year-old twin sons.”  With these scalding, perfectly timed sentences, Exley sets the unflinching and bibulous tone of the book and begins his search for what went wrong.  The search leads him into the past, with literary cohesion rather than literal chronology determining the novel’s structure.

 At the time of his “heart attack,” Exley is a disgruntled high school English teacher, who is trying to find his way back into the world after various failures and false starts.  Teaching obviously isn’t the solution, and on weekends he drives fifty miles to his hometown where he pursues his real passions: drinking, the New York Giants, and, most of all, Frank Gifford.  The obsession with Frank Gifford, we find out, began at USC, which they both attended.  Gifford was an All American at USC, and Exley knows “no way of  describing this phenomenon short of equating it with being Pope in the Vatican.” His name is all over the papers, he is buzzed about in cafeterias and on quads, and his girlfriend, even among a sea of gorgeous women, has a beauty that “to linger on makes the beholder feel obscene.” Unlike everyone else on campus, Exley and his circle of literati outcasts refuse to even mention Gifford’s name, but this silence makes him, contradictorily, “more present” than if they had “like the pathetic nincompoops on fraternity row” spent all their “idle hours singing his praises.”  Gifford has a confused place in Exley’s heart—on the one hand, he despises him for his success and for the obliging superficiality of the society that would grant him such an exalted status, but, on the other hand, he is deeply jealous of him and craves similar rewards.

Exley’s fascination with Gifford was perhaps foreshadowed by his relationship to his father, Earl.  Earl, who died of cancer when Frederick was in his early teens, was a semi-professional football player in Watertown and had achieved a sort of folk hero status.  Not only was his football prowess legendary, he had the back-slapping ability to connect with everyone—from the town’s politicians to its street urchins.  Young Fred loved his father and was mesmerized by his hold over the townsfolk.  At the same time, he despaired at his own athleticism falling short of his father’s, both on the level of father/son competition, and on the level of captivating the populace.  Though Exley never explicitly makes the connection, the parallels between his father and Gifford are clear.  After he leaves USC with a degree in English and returns back East, Exley has vague dreams of fame, which he believes he has inherited like an “heirloom” from his father.

New York proves to be indifferent to Exley’s dreams.  While spinning a fantasy of a literary celebrity to come, Exley goes on a madcap job hunt.  On his search for prosaic employment, Exley notes, “I would use that genius to sell cornflakes.  It was to be a kind of Mephistophelean pact in which they would pay me until that time when the apartment and the Vassar blonde materialized, and I could get down to the business of realizing my talent.”  In this pursuit, he loads his resume with false, grandiose claims; either treats his interviewers with outrageous contempt or succumbs to self-conscious paralysis; and writes long, scathing letters to companies he has no intention of working for.  (The result of one of these letters is a hilarious encounter with a man Exley dubs “Cary Grant,” who calls him out on his fake query).  Needless to say, Exley’s job search isn’t too fruitful, and he begins to despair at “the inability of a man to impose his dreams, his ego, upon the city.”  Conversely, it is Exley’s own anonymous failure that cements his adoration of Frank Gifford: with his fame and hold over the “city’s hard mentality,” Gifford showed the true potential of the individual.

Chastened by his lack of success, Exley drops his outlandish approach to getting hired, and takes a public relations job with the New York Central Railroad.  By day, he reads magazines and lusts after a Radcliffe educated co-worker.  By night, he frequents a circuit of bars, in which, ideally, bleakness and alcohol help him to sustain his literary fantasies.  On weekends, of course, there is the Giants.  In the bleachers, Exley watches the games with a crew of equally rabid roughnecks.  This routine continues for a year until the railroad transfers him to a job in Chicago.  In Chicago, Exley resumes his typical pattern: heavy drinking, one night stands, sports addiction, and the invention of a series of alter-egos.  This pattern is broken, however, when he meets Bunny Sue Allogree.  Bunny Sue is the arm piece of the American Dream (as her last name, “Allogree”—allegory—implies).  Meeting her on a blind date, Exley observes, “…she was so very American.  She was the Big Ten coed whose completeness is such that a bead of perspiration at the temple is enough to break the heart.  She was the Sweetheart of Sigma Chi—well, no, not precisely; precisely she was the only sophomore in the history of Michigan or Illinois or Indiana to be chosen, above all those other honey-dipped girls, Homecoming Queen.  And finally, she was Chicago’s impossible, nearly obscene gift to me.”  Exley has seemingly found the appropriate trophy to accompany his incipient fame.  He spends a summer mooning over her in letters and weekend visits.  Yet, something is wrong.  He is unaccountably and repeatedly impotent with her.  While they assiduously (and hysterically) work on this problem, Exley’s hopes of true love vanish after a visit to her parents’ house.  Behind an ostensible white picket idyll, he finds a noxious social climber for a mother, and an emasculated father.  It doesn’t take long for Exley to project a similar fate for Bunny and himself, and the relationship is doomed.

Though he has shown hints of his impending implosion, the train really leaves the tracks with the break-up with Bunny.  Shortly thereafter, he is fired from his job for excessive drinking.  He begins an itinerant existence, working dead end jobs across the country. This phase ends with a drunk and disorderly arrest in Miami.  From there, he returns to his mother’s house where he spends six months on a davenport in borderline catatonia.  Alarmed, his mother checks him into a mental hospital, the first of two, with repeated visits.Through the aid of the introspection that months on a davenport and in a hospital affords (along with a purposeless street fight), Exley discovers the source of his personal turmoil.  He writes, “…it was my destiny—unlike that of my father, whose fate it was to hear the roar of the crowd—to sit in the stands with most men and acclaim others.  It was my fate, my destiny, my end, to be a fan.”

Exley, I think, would probably acknowledge that his theory of being the frustrated star as the root of his troubles is a bit facile.  After all, if everyone leading “lives of quiet desperation” were to act out as Exley had, America would be nothing more than smoldering rubble.  Yes, his absence from the center stage contributed to his maladjustment, and it’s a nice conceit to spin a book around, but rarely can an essentially abstract longing create such personal devastation.  I think there were other subterranean forces at work, whether chemical or existential or dipsomaniacal, that would have made Exley as discontent in Elizabethan England or Tang Dynasty China, as in Twentieth Century America.  This observation is by no means meant to detract from his accomplishment; on the contrary, Exley, faced with an unknowable self, needed to latch on to a theme that rendered his life intelligible.  Indeed, when he strays from his notion of himself as a fan, the book is at its weakest.  In the chapter, “Who?  Who?  Who is Mr. Blue?” Exley gets caught up in the particulars at the expense of the overall narrative.  Not that this chapter is bad—in itself, it’s highly entertaining—but, it stalls the progression of the novel with extraneous action.

That he actually wrote the book is something of a miracle: when he wasn’t on a bender, in a hospital, or lying on the sofa, his writing consisted of either copying, over and over, two pages of Remembrance of Things Past, or filling notebook upon notebook with stream of consciousness riffing.  The book he finally settled down to write is nothing short of a masterpiece, the work of an intelligent, funny, and perceptive man given the challenge of analyzing his own ludicrous behavior.  This, I think, is the true source of the book’s power: the disconnect between the eloquent and rational narrator and the story he narrates.  Where he could have so easily ruined his story with mawkishness or egotism, he instead succeeds with honesty, magnanimity, and eyes that do not blink.  The book is also unique in that it really isn’t quite fiction, nor is it quite a memoir—it’s almost an elaborate Statement of Purpose, or, for that matter, a Statement of Lack of Purpose.  The Purpose becomes the Statement itself.  The book also begs the age-old question of whether art is worth personal suffering.  Would it be more just to have a Van Gogh with both ears unshorn than a “Sunflowers”?  A Poe, whistling to work, instead of “The Raven”?  The answer to that question is as varied as the individual artists are.  I have the feeling that Exley wouldn’t have had it any other way.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Sara April 1, 2013 at 5:19 pm

Ah, the great Frederick Exley and what a photo…. Keep up the good work. Your magazine is dynamite. Cheers!

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