Skip to main content

A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley

I guess it shouldn't, but it does still surprise me just how many books that I pick up, read through avidly and enjoy thoroughly only to discover a Kurt Vonnegut quote on the back. Maybe it says something about how my tastes track his, or how what I enjoy reading is shaped by the glut of Vonnegut I read during my formative reading phase. It's also equally probable that, when struggling for someone to slap a cast-iron guarantee on the back of their latest publication, the unscrupulous editor would habitually turn to a man with few qualms about attaching his singular surname to future American classics in return for some cigarette money. Just how I got to this strange confluence of literary hero and American deadbeat in the form of Frederick Exley is a fairly odd journey, but one worth recording for posterity.

A number of years ago, in a former life as a bookseller, I picked up a book by a group of Cambridge scholars intent on myth-busting in professional football (soccer); it's great, if academic. In it, Andersson et al mention Stefan Szymanski and Simon Kuper's great book called "Why England Lose", itself worthy of perusal by anyone interested in the statistical analysis of football, but informed by Michael Lewis' seminal work "Moneyball". Still with me? Anyway, Lewis makes a point of mentioning Fred Exley, quite in what context I can't recall off hand, but with sufficient emphasis to make me jump on to Amazon and buy a cheap used hardback copy. As with most impulse purchases, it sat on the shelf waiting for my quickly flagging interest to be peaked once more by something unrelated. It wasn't. Nonetheless, like the good Taurean boy that I am, I eventually felt sufficiently obligated to read it, given that I'd bought it in such a frenzy.

Ok, so enough with the procrastination. I guess you've noticed I do this when I'm anxious about committing my thoughts to "paper" on a book about which I feel strongly. And I do feel strongly about Fred Exley. To give him some background for those unfamiliar, and I suspect there are lots of those, this book reputedly arrived out of the ether. Friends and family were stunned to learn that this semi-autobiographical work had been poured forth from the head of such an introvert, an occasional resident of mental institutions, and a blue-collar drunk, as Fred (all of the above),  had shown no previous talent for writing. It would seem he wrung it out of himself during a stay at a drying-out clinic, and in a sense it could be seen as a step to recovery, except for the fact that he shows no remorse for the path chosen, and is only genuinely sorry for his own defeats and losses along the way, not for those whose paths he crosses. It matters not, however, for what emerges, regardless of the motivation behind it, is a tale of the corruption of the  American Dream to rival the most twisted Tom Waits lyric. In the pantheon of Classic American literature, this book (and only this book from Exley, whose other attempts are derivative and repetetive) can sit comfortably with Salinger, Farina and Brautigan, and my own rather random objections to Kerouac aside, wipes the floor with On The Road. Forgive me if I confuse the author with the character, but it would be juvenile to think that they are not one and the same. There are moments of epiphanic beauty, of crushing black lethargy, of trampled humanity and uplifting Humanism, as Exley unsparingly critiques his own beliefs and acknowledges the cruel indifference of unthinking habit. He tracks his life against that of his father, a local hero thanks to his sporting prowess and a community leader despite his own bellicose dypsomania, and of famous NY Giants running back Frank Gifford, with whom the protagonist insists on maintaining a tenuous connection as erstwhile College peers. And whilst living life vicariously through Gifford's on-field exploits, Exley's alter-ego pushes deeper into the sordid underbelly of the intellectual malaise that constitutes his own existence, constantly looking for sanctuary from the onslaught of America, a country and an ideal with which he identifies and against which he rails.

I love this book. It is devastating, wonderful and by far the most valid and valuable book I've read this year. What thought processes it starts! It lacks closure, resolution, the happy ending of Hollywood, and yet makes me profoundly happy. If you would consider yourself a fan of American writing, make some space for Fred on your shelf with Hemingway and Hawthorne. He'll be right at home.

 

Comments

How's about that then?

Damned If I Do by Percival Everett

Where I should be recovering from a particularly nasty stomach bug, rather I appear to be on a Percival Everett trip today - first Strom, now Damned - but he really is that good. Good as in read-everything-he's-written-now good. Good as in I'm writing this on my iPad never more than two meters from the nearest toilet good. That's good. 

Damned If I Do is short stories, yes. That I have a curious relationship with short fiction is undisputed, but there are some like Breece D'J Pancake and Haruki Murakami that just have to be read, objections or no. Thankfully, it appears Everett has inherited some of their ability to write convincing, understated and ultimately addictive snippets of prose. And snippets they are. Somewhere I read once a quote from China Mielville where he says he just loves it when writers don't show the reader the monster in its entirety, that leaving something of the horror to the imagination of his audience adds a level of engagement and makes the …

A Death In The Family: My Struggle Volume 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

I sit here, wearing my limited edition Knausgaard t-shirt, immensely grateful to the kind people at Vintage Books for their surprising gift of the first four novels (and aforementioned t-shirt) simply as a result of being able to post a comment on their YouTube Vlog. There may have been a hidden agenda, considering I'm a book blogger (What, interrobang, a book blogger, interrobang and so on...) but I prefer to believe they picked me at random. Because I'm ace. 
Nonetheless, I had no idea what to expect of these books. I did do a little reading, and found lots of very interesting articles about Karl Ove Knausgaard, including this entertaining one in the Wall Street Journal. But in all honesty, nothing prepared me for reading them, and I can see why they cause controversy and consternation wherever they are translated (which is pretty much everywhere).
First off, being intelligent and perspicacious readers as I trust you all to be, you will no doubt have spotted the whole Godwin&#…

Breakfast Of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

In days gone by, when repeatedly pressed about what my favourite book might be, a banal question seeking an impossible and crude reductionist answer to which I was usually rude in response, I would offer Breakfast Of Champions as a pacifier. 

I first read it in University, and it has, to some degree, influenced how I think and feel about a lot of things. Strikingly, I've never wanted to re-read it. Perhaps I was afraid I'd find fault the second time around and wanted to uphold it as a paragon of meta-fiction. Perhaps, but then I'm a relentless consumer of fiction and was always on to the next consumable work, never having time or inclination to go back.

So in the spirit of a more considered and thoughtful phase of my life I decided I wanted to read something that once made me feel good.

I'd clearly not remembered it very well.

But before that, I'm amazed I've gone *mumbles* years without once mentioning Kilgore Trout in my reviews, even in passing. The same goes fo…

Metaliterature - what meaning to have is this for meaning?

Not a review this time, more of a curiosity. It seems I'm receiving lots of hits from Russia (Здравствуйте России!) from people searching for the definition of "metaliterature". As such, it is something of a bespoke word, created to fit a need and probably not yet recognized outside literary theory / criticism circles (Merriam-Webster Online certainly don't like it). I was wondering what they typed in to end up here, so, for fun (it's not fun, sorry) I thought I'd bung it in Google Translate and see what came out. As it turns out, one needs a little hyphen for the rather ponderous machine to understand it, and even then only does half the job (meta seems to be meta in any language). 
Incidentally, below is, ironically, a Google Chrome Thesaurus definition* of "meta":

met·a Adjective/ˈmetə/
(of a creative work) Referring to itself or to the conventions of its genre; self-referentialInterestingly (not interesting, sorry) it says this for the full term, t…