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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.

 

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