August 2002

Michael Schaub

hundred books

A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley

Looks like we found a way to sneak some nonfiction onto the Bookslut 100 after all. Frederick Exley's first novel is basically a memoir with a wink -- a sort of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle
for self-loathing depressive alcoholics. "No one who has read it can ever forget it," wrote James Dickey. Turns out that's an understatement. I don't think I've ever read an author this appalling and engaging, this creepily charismatic. You get the feeling that if Exley had preferred slightly younger women, he could have out-Nabokoved Nabokov. A Fan's Notes is more beautifully written than 99.5% of the books I've ever read; it's a nearly perfect piece of art. Did I enjoy reading it? No, no, good God, no.

It's up for debate how much Fred Exley, the author, actually resembled Fred Exley, the narrator of this book. Exley's biographer, Jonathan Yardley, argues that they're one and the same, that A Fan's Notes is essentially unvarnished autobiography. I hope not. And that's not just because of the harrowing depictions of life with mental illness and various confinements in psychiatric hospitals. (Exley describes both more realistically than a dozen Sylvia Plaths or Ken Keseys.) Exley portrays himself as an uber-loser, an American creep, an un-man. He loses his virginity in a high school orgy that seems not far removed from a gang rape. He seduces and dominates a succession of young women. He spews homophobic vitriol one page, subtly brags about two gay friends on another. He does, however, have the common decency to feel bad about it. I finished this book with more pity for Exley than sympathy. Which is, I imagine, the point.

That's not to say it didn't resonate with me. I finished reading it weeks ago; I've thought about it every day and night since then. Exley and I have at least one language in common, and that's football (the American kind -- you know, the kind that's actually fun to watch). I always kind of thought of myself as a football fan. I spend a lot of autumn Saturday afternoons watching Big 12 college games. I've lost money in Super Bowl office pools (way to choke, Rams). I can tell the difference between the fleaflicker and the swinging gate. But my fandom is nothing compared to Exley's obsession with the late '50s/early '60s New York Giants -- and in particular, their star running back, Frank Gifford (yep, Kathie Lee's husband). Exley loved the Giants like most people love their families. I don't know what it's like to actually love a football team. I guess I just don't have the capacity. But I understand it, I really do understand it, and I remain suspicious of people who claim they don't. Regardless, even the most cynical hipster would probably find it comforting that Exley found it in him to love something.

It's impossible to know what to say in response to this book. It's tempting to invoke Wittgenstein and just pass over it in silence. I laughed when I read one of the breathless newspaper blurbs on the back: "When I urge A Fan's Notes on a friend who asks what is it like? I say read it, just read it." I'm not sure I have the heart to urge this book on any of my friends, all of whom have quite enough depression in their lives already. In fact, sometimes I wish I could un-read it. But I'm damn sure convinced that this belongs the 100 Books list; I am utterly certain of its worth. I'll never forget it; I'll never stop wishing that I could.