Fredrick Exley (1929-1992) – Photo of the writer as a vulnerable, sensitive young man. In many ways, much too vulnerable and sensitive for mid-20th century American society, a society where a man’s prime virtue is being tough.
A Fan’s Notes is the odyssey of one man’s unending heartbreak and retreat into an inner world of fantasy and dreams, a retreat, by his own account and language, punctuated by alcoholism and trips to the madhouse; or, put another way, an autobiographical novel about Fredrick Exley’s longtime failure in the years prior to when he finally staked his claim to fame by writing a memoir about his aching, painful life.
First off, let me say bellying up to a bar, drinking, smoking, commiserating, cheering for a sports team while watching a game is not me, which is understatement. I recall walking into a bar when in college and found the whole scene sour and depressing. I haven’t even come close to stepped into a bar once in the past nearly fifty years.
I mention since the Fred Exley in this fictional memoir is a bargoer who drinks, smokes, commiserates, and obsessively cheers for a sports team – the New York Giants. For these reasons and others, including much of the way he talks about women, I do not particularly like the main character.
However, this being said, A Fan’s Notes is a well-written literary gush, reminding me more of Henry Miller than Charles Bukowski, a compelling, excruciatingly honest personal saga, overflowing with keen insights into human nature and caustic observations on American culture, a book I found, for a number of personal reasons, deeply moving when I first read back in 1988 published as part of the Vintage Contemporaries series.
Rereading these past few weeks, I must say I enjoying every well-turned phrase and outrageous, boldfaced, audacious twisting of fact into fiction: author’s self-portrayal as a slovenly lout, alcoholic slob, misogynist pig, lowlife outsider, misfit and complete loser, not to mention misty-eyed dreamer and weaver of fantastic delusions. At the point when Freddie Ex finally pulled his life together enough to begin seriously writing, he probably had more than a few good chuckles and a few shed tears with each draft.
The first personal reason I found this novel moving back in 1988 is very personal: at the time I was having a mid-life crisis, working with a spiteful, nasty boss and unpleasant coworkers in what turned out to be, for me, the wrong career. I had to make a serious change and Exley’s novel, especially those parts where he reflected on the insanity of work world USA, served as something of a literary friend through it all, right up until the time when I made a successful switch.
The second reason has to do with my friend Craig, a sensitive, vulnerable, highly artistic man who reminded me a great deal of Fred Exley. Actually, very much like Exley, Craig worked in the advertising industry, was fired because of drinking, and after marrying and having a couple kids, divorced and, like Exley, returned to live in the basement of his parent’s house. Turns out, Craig was simply too sensitive to function in the “normal” world. And similar to Exley, he idolized Hemingway and tried writing the Great American Novel but, unfortunately, he was no Exley – his writing, right up to the day he dropped dead of a massive heart attack at age 55, was overly sentimental and downright awful.
I relate personal reasons since my guess is Exley’s A Fan’s Notes enjoyed an initial cult following comprised of men (and perhaps women) who, like myself, were either going through a phase of life-transition or those sensitive souls who, for a number of reasons, could never successfully function in conventional society. I also imagine many of these sensitive types, similar to my friend Craig, tried to write first-rate fiction but their efforts fell short. At least they could turn to A Fan’s Notes for some solace.
And I wonder how many of these sensitive souls had strong fathers like Fred Exley, when he writes, “Moreover, my father’s shadow was so imposing that I had scarcely ever, until that moment, had an identity of my own. At the same time I had yearned to emulate and become my father. I also yearned for his destruction.”
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