Book of a lifetime: A Fan's Notes, By Frederick Exley
The writer and broadcaster Terence Blacker contributes a twice-weekly column on a wide range of social, cultural and environmental issues. He is the author of four novels, of prize-winning fiction for children, and has written a highly praised biography of the brilliant reprobate Willie Donaldson.
Saturday 05 January 2013
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.
Terence Blacker's novel 'The Twyning' is published this month by Head of Zeus
film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Woman falls to her death as she celebrates marriage proposal at the edge of Ibiza cliff
- 2 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 3 Dad attempts revenge on teenage daughter, plan backfires spectacularly
- 4 Ball pool for adults opens in London
- 5 Amal Clooney gives excellent response to fashion question at European Court of Human Rights
Game of Thrones, season 5: Grey Worm actor Jacob Anderson is all for more male nudity – as long as he can keep his clothes on
Venezuela Expo Tattoo 2015: Extreme body art from 'Vampire Woman' to 109mm earlobes
Game of Thrones really doesn't want Danny Dyer - EastEnders star rejected three times
Martin Scorsese 'in shock' after death on set of new film Silence
Game of Thrones season 5 trailer: The first full-length look is here
9 reasons Greece's experiment with the radical left is doomed to failure
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
Have we reached 'peak food'? Shortages loom as global production rates slow
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford faces execution by firing squad in Indonesia
Liberal Democrat minister defends comments suggesting immigration causes pub closures