A Fan’s Notes
by Frederick Exley
385 pages / $16 Buy from Amazon
Though not a formal review per se—a sort of dependency on the author renders me useless to approach it in some Kakutanian format to perhaps bring a notion of what will follow when the pages are opened up and the narrative begins—I still cannot think of a novel better to be explored in a few hundred words that affected me of late than Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes.
Tending to be referred to as the go-to novel for lost undergraduates (guilty, it should be admitted early on), Exley’s masterpiece is the first in a trilogy of roman a clef works of fiction describing the life of a character named Frederick Exley, who’s seen largely the same things as its author—the two books that follow are Pages From a Cold Island and Last Notes From Home; both equally as triumphant as their predecessor and in true fanatical circles are thought of as the middle and last works in an omnibus rather than a separate and lesser force than the original. I came upon Exley in the fall, which any avid fan will acknowledge is the perfect time to discover him, as much of the novel’s emphasis is on the impact of football—more pointedly, the Giants in the Frank Gifford era—on its protagonist and essentially describes him losing his mind over both a love of the game and of literature. Throughout the narrative it’s as common to have a random digression into a description of the college years of Gifford at USC—they, Exley and Gifford, attended at the same time and were lightly acquainted—as it is for him to cite the letters and journals of F. Scott Fitzgerald losing his mind when Zelda found herself bound up in an insane asylum.
This book is as much a meditation on the rebuilding of a man’s belief in the world after having it torn away from him time and again as it is a perfect description of the human condition in the 20th century. Exley has here personified the condition both of literary men and women and of ambivalence as a general state of being for the artist of the new age. There’s a belief that in literature, personal or otherwise, when you dig deep enough into the personal you come to the universal, or the general, and a more astute observation could not be made in reference to Exley; he’s telling us the status of a life bogged down by alcohol and debt, confusion and lack of acknowledgement or creativity as a writer, and in so doing he’s giving us the state of things as they are then, now, and likely forever.
The narrative is steeped in booze and misery, loneliness and solace found only in books and a pile of the various sports pages from all the papers across the country on a Sunday in a dirty bar in upstate New York; the narrative is steeped in honesty and paranoia, fear of the future and rejection of the past, and a more honest novel I’ve likely never stumbled across.
Upon looking up his name, you’ll find very little: a few images, a few quotes, a few selections from the book and a sparsely-littered Wikipedia page informing you of biographical information (Born March 28, 1929 in Watertown, NY. Died June 17, 1992 and was buried in Watertown), won the Guggenheim Fellowship, drank like a fish, taught at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and so on and so forth. It wasn’t these facts that concerned me; it was a recent rereading of The Great Gatsby and the juxtaposition of that quote on the cover of Amazon’s copy of A Fan’s Notes (“The greatest novel in the English language since The Great Gatsby,” I believe it was) that drew me in. I ordered a copy, and after waiting several days sat down in the bathtub with a few cans of O’doul’s (I don’t drink, but it’s Exley for fuck’s sake…) and three hours later was 100+ pages deep into the book, ready to fall fast asleep only to wake the next day ready to read more.
In that month I read only four books, finishing at the beginning of the month Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night, which I’d started at the end of the summer; and Exley’s grand debauched trilogy, consisting of A Fan’s Notes, Pages from a Cold Island, and Last Notes from Home. I walked around with the books in my hands constantly, comparing everything to them, picking up copies of the newspaper to trying to read the sports pages just like Exley did each Sunday before his infamous heart attack. I became obsessed, and the obsession washed over me in a cool wave of literary excellence that I still feel buried deep in my blood today.
Grant Maierhofer is the author of The Persistence of Crows and the weekly column A Cabana of the Mind for Delphian Inc., his unrelated work can be found at GrantMaierhofer.Org. He lives in Wisconsin and is currently at work revising a second novel for publication next fall.