Monday, January 04, 2016

A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley

This is the book that broke me, broke the Vintage Contemporaries reading series, broke it all to hell. A Fan's Notes has only 383 pages in the edition I read, but it took three long weeks to slog through it, and only the fact that it was finite kept me going. Then, only the end of a year could induce me to finally write about it, now that the memory has receded a bit and I can think about it without cursing the name of Exley.

In case you have a short attention span, I'll say this up front: I don't recommend reading A Fan's Notes. Unless, of course, you happen to be a ne'er-do-well alcoholic wanna-be writer far too obsessed with football in the late 1960s. If that's the case, boy howdy, do I have the book for you.

A Fan's Notes is one of those books that claims both to be a novel, so that the real people who Exley knew would not sue him, and the essentially true story of his real life, because no one would care about it at all otherwise. Exley's dead now, and so is Frank Gifford, and probably most of the other people mentioned, under their own names or others, in this book -- so it now doesn't matter how true or not it all is. That frisson is long over, and the book has to stand on what it is -- one long whine by a guy who feels he deserves better than he gets but is smart enough not to say so explicitly.

Exley was born in 1929, to a locally prominent family in a small city in upstate New York, and had the misfortune to have a father who both was a star of the high school football team in his youth and died right in the middle of young Exley's own non-football-playing high school years. And then he went to USC at the same time as Gifford, which cemented his football obsession -- mostly focused on the Giants, though, like all American sports manias, it was wide enough to cover whatever game was on at the moment. [1] This all conspired to ruin young Exley, as A Fan's Notes more-or-less says, at much greater length and with copious Hemingway-esque tough-guy writing that wants to be profound but ends up deeply in tedium.

Oh, and he had some degree of mental illness -- either resulting from his alcoholism, or vice versa, or maybe even co-existent but independent. And so he spent time in asylums in the early 1960s, during that great era when Americans had absolutely no idea how to deal with mental illness. (One can feel sorry for Exley for this, which is something -- everything else is utterly his fault.)

And so A Fan's Notes is the long, meandering story of how Exley fucked up his life -- getting jobs because he's a white guy who went to a good school, even when he's clearly unsuitable, losing those jobs for cause, getting married to a woman who must have seen something in him though I'm damned if I can tell what, shattering that marriage once they had children for maximum fuck-up-itude, and so forth. Throughout it all, Exley has an unshakable conviction that he is A Writer, and that will finally redeem him and make him important.

And when he pulled this monstrosity out of his ass in the mid-1960s, the all-white, all-male literary establishment of the time apparently was so impressed that one of their own could so impressively fuck up (and, supposedly, recover) that they made A Fan's Notes a minor commercial success and a strong critical one. But, speaking as a white male from a slightly younger generation, this was all in-group bullshit, and they should have called Exley on his flaws rather than enabling them.

(He later continued along the same path, with two more similar oh-look-I-fucked-up-again books and an itinerant teaching career mostly based on having written this. If A Fan's Notes had sunk without a trace, he might have actually had to clean himself up and settle down to do something.)

Don't read this book. Forget it ever existed. It's just the story of one guy who got far too many breaks for far too long due to his inherent privilege, and used all of those second chances just to make a crappy, self-indulgent book about how sad his life was. I say phooey to him and phooey it all.

[1] Exley doesn't claim to be a close friend of Gifford's; they seem to have met briefly a couple of times and that's about it. But Gifford was a great football player and Exley aspired to be a great football fan, which is good enough for him.

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