Book of a lifetime: A Fan's Notes, By Frederick Exley

 

Most of the books of my lifetime have an explicable chronology to them. I read Joseph Heller's Something Happened when I was first working in an office. Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier fascinated me when I was first trying to write a novel. Lorrie Moore's collection The Birds of America reached me when I was in a post-divorce haze.

How I came to be reading Frederick Exley's astonishing fictional memoir A Fan's Notes, I have no idea. It must have been in the early 1970s when, in a state of post-university confusion, I was involved on the outer fringes of horse-racing. It was definitely the book of a lifetime for Exley. He was pretty washed up by the time it was published in 1968 – indeed, that is the theme of the book. Although he published two lesser follow-ups, that was much the way it stayed for his 63 years on earth. In the words of the Chicago Tribune, "He remained a drunk and a layabout, and even before he died of a stroke on June 17, 1992, he had been largely forgotten along with his work." Not by me, he wasn't. His book changed the way I saw writing. It was wilder and braver than anything I had ever read.

It is all here – the rage, the lust, the alcoholism, the crack-ups leading to three spells in mental institutions. There are disastrous attempts to get on with the forces of respectability, and a woozy, doomed longing for literary recognition. In many ways, it is something of a period piece: the self-destructive boozed-up writer was an archetype of the time. Similar scenes are to be found in the work of Kesey or Heller.

Yet A Fan's Notes is different. It is visceral and intimate. Self-absorbed, it is also searingly perceptive about what happens between fathers and sons, men and women. Exley's fear, the nightmare which vitiates the whole book, is that, unlike his father and his hero, Frank Gifford of the New York Giants, he was doomed "to sit in the stands with most men and acclaim others. It was my fate, my destiny, my end, to be a fan."

If I had read A Fan's Notes later, I would have been less smitten by it. By then I would have seen rather too many boastful, self-pitying, would-be Hemingways drinking themselves to death, imitating writers like Exley.

Never mind. In that relatively innocent moment, the wonderful, accursed life of Frederick Exley, and the sweeping, hilarious passion with which he recounted it, broke down the division between writing and life, and showed me what a writer could do.

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