Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Fred Exley - A FAN'S NOTES

When I started this blog, it was mainly so I could have a place to put down my thoughts about certain specific authors that I didn’t see getting talked about on the web. That’s still the point -- but unfortunately the early bunch of these have been authors that I already know, and one thing about me is that I’ll wrestle to figure out my aesthetic opinion of something, but once it’s done it’s done. I don’t really reconsider my judgements all that much -- except maybe to somewhat downgrade something I used to hold in high esteem because of Youthful Folly (ie, Catch-22).

Now you might say, why don’t you read some new stuff, then, Jesus, quit whining about it. And I will. But I have a lot of old stuff that’s suitable lying around, and I better get rid of that first. Waste not want not, as Al Gore would say.

The point of all this is, these entries are going to necessarily be lighter than the real new stuff, as I don’t have to deal with the shock of the new -- I’m already pretty sure about what I think about these books; I’m just setting my thoughts down by way of duty, more or less.
So. Fred Exley. Despite the weaslely “this is really a novel” proviso Exley inserts at the beginning even Yardley admits in the preface to my Modern Library edition that it’s a lightly fictionalized memoir, so it needs to be appreciated on that level. Ie, it makes no sense to talk about characterizations, or even plot in something like this, since this is really the guy’s life, or a somewhat idealized (I know how that sounds to fans of the book, but stick with me for a second) version of it, or at least his understanding of it. So let’s get that out of the way. (It irritates me when people talk about FAN’S NOTES like it’s a novel. A novel how, exactly?)

That said, I think this is an absolutely amazing book for the most part, a work of genius. Exley is almost the paradigmatic one book author, because where else would he/could he go after this?
A FAN'S NOTES is awesome in that it makes art of the absolute miserable qualities of Exley’s life -- his utter failure at absolutely every standard available. And it’s important to understand that he’s a failure -- he’s not, say, a secret “success” that’s misunderstood by American society. One of the best things about the book is that Exley is as unforgiving about his own life as we are, or should be. He’s not self-regarding. His willingness to really judge himself puts this in the first rank of memoirs. (How can we really escape our own narcissitic traps?) Exley is perfectly willing to admit here that he’s a drunk, crazy, self-destructive, and willing to sabotage every decent thing in his life (jobs, relationships) for a chance at fame so fleeting and ephemeral it’s not a “chance”, really, just a dream and not a particularly persuasive one at that.

Still, it holds it’s sway over Exley. Maybe it was the experience of growing up with his father, a local legend now forgotten, of course. Or maybe it was the brief experience of knowing Frank Gifford, back in the day when that actually meant something. (I have always been curious of what Gifford thought of Exley, especially since, as well as known as he once was, the only place future generations are likely to think of him at all is here, through the lens of a hopeless idolater/envier. What does Gifford think of the fact that he’ll best be remembered through the lens of a FAN, with all the complexity that entails?) Somehow Exley derived the notion that fame was the gateway to a meaningful life in modern America.

I think a lot of American men feel the same way. So much so that if I were to assign a syllabus on “the modern American male”, this is definitely one of the required texts -- it explains so much, not the sports stuff per se as the vicarious living and the resulting neglect of real life, the desperate attempt to try and grab meaningfulness in a sea of meaninglessness. As such, Exley’s final sorrowful notion that he would always be a fan is one of the emotional high points of post WW 2 American literature.

It is often a mordantly funny book, and I am puzzled by reviewers who don’t see it. It’s a black sort of humor, to be sure, a lot of whistling past the graveyard, but it’s there. The whole bit with the traveling salesmen who was constantly curious about cunnilingus is proof positive of that alone. It also has moments of real class and style, particularly the final pages, with it‘s final haunting image of Exley running, pointlessly.

Highly recommended.

This is the best post I found on Exley, and pretty much summarizes his appeal:

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Short Takes: Robert Marasco's BURNT OFFERINGS

Well, first of all, to all the people who came in because I linked to Steyn, I'm quite shocked, as I had no idea anyone was paying attention to this thing. As for Steyn himself, I'm rather an admirer, and certainly feel his "America Alone" thesis is an important one. I also think he's fighting a very brave fight up there in Canada.

I just don't think he's much of a literary critic. Conservative critics tend to fall into the same sorts of traps, a common one being a kind of clubby "we're all boys here" sort of thing, which is mainly what that Amis piece is. Amis is an interesting writer but he's most interesting to those who can keep from swallowing the bait, basically.

As for Mr. Max Allan Collins, who got snippy with me on another blog because I dared suggest he was what he in fact is, a blah workmanlike writer, I hereby announce an occasional feature put here soley to amuse myself -- Max Allan Collins huckster watch! Watch as Max Allan Collins relentlessly googles his name to remind us of various products he has for sale or soon will have for sale!

We're waiting for you, Max! Don't let us down!

As for Marasco's BURNT OFFERINGS, this is something of an unrecognized book, surely better than the Farris stuff we waded through recently. In fact, it's better than Tryon's stuff too, albeit not as well written on a line by line basis and not as imaginative or inventive. Marasco is a good solid thoughtful writer, but he doesn't have the kind of lyricism that Tryon, at his best, could pack into his prose. There's nothing here that equals the giddy final pulling back of the drape in THE OTHER, or the sheer careful chutzpah of the house of cards in HARVEST HOME.

So how's it better? It's just better realized, man. It's better thought through. First let's get the obvious out of the way -- THE SHINING owes a lot to this. The story presupposes a house which seduces one parent into the "caretaking" function away from her proper familial "caretaking" (THE SHINING obviously borrows a lot from this); which on some level feeds on discord and rancor (I mean, it really does, doesn't this sound like The Overlook?), where the unearthing of the past as seen through things is seen as a perilous undertaking (man, gimme a break, huh? Jack with the scrapbook); finally the house itself is "the character" and succeeds by sucking up, essentially, the family's lives. THE SHINING is basically a rewrite of this notion; catty comments about King's originality to one side he just does a better job with the concept. The outside world is dreamy and inaccessible in Marasco; King will make it literally inaccessible. The notion that the house is the prime mover itself is hinted at in the book -- King will be quite clear that it's the Overlook itself who's the antagonist. Ideas that are blurred over in Marasco -- perhaps because he's often writing from a female pov and isn't wholly comfortable with it -- are quite sharp with King, because this is mostly from a male pov and King brings in very sharp observations about masculine insecurity, etc.

But never mind King for a second -- compare Marasco to Tryon and while Tryon is the more natural novelist, and probably the more interesting talent, Marasco's playwriting experience paid off and he's built a much more secure structure here. The more I think about it, it feels a lot like a play -- a limited cast of characters, very careful scenes, the outside world deliberately dreamy and far away, a pistol in scene one will eventually be fired at the end of the play, etc. It just works better, and I admire it more than I admire Tryon's work because I'm not constantly in the position of picking flaws with it.

I'm not sure I'd always want to say that about every book -- I don't think I want to reduce this to a critical precept. Sometimes the novel of incredible highs and lows, broken as it can be, is better than the well-made mediocrity. But there is a satisfaction to be found in BURNT OFFERINGS that's not lightly dismissed -- a well made thing of any kind is a treasure, as so much isn't.

Very highly recommended -- if you have any taste at all for Seventies horror, you'll like this. Effectively downbeat, too.

Next time, Exley's A FAN'S NOTES.