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