When I set out to write what I hoped would be an unorthodox literary essay about my experiences as a professional squash player beset with crippling anxiety, a good friend of mine suggested that I read A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley. He refused to go into details about the novel, briefly describing its subjects as fandom, obsession, and sports.
He indicated I would have to draw my own conclusion as to what A Fan’s Notes is really about, but he promised that I was going to identify with something in there. I was hesitant—after all I wasn’t some fan sitting in the stands, I was the athlete.
In the brief preface to his novel, Exley calls his book a work of fiction or fantasy, claiming that the events of the novel only bear a passing similarity to his life, an event he refers to as “that long malaise.” In fact, A Fan’s Notes, published in 1968, owes more to memoir than to fiction, so minutely does it mirror the chronology and pathos of Exley’s personal history. (The novel’s protagonist is in fact named Frederick Exley.) In today’s literary climate with the blurred and shifting demarcation between memoir and fiction, A Fan’s Notes would have been aggressively and successfully marketed as non-fiction. Exley is the hard-boiled, unredeemed precursor to alcoholic survivalists Augusten Burroughs and Mary Karr. But an unrepentant drinker until his death, unlike his literary progeny, Exley neither required nor received redemption.
Sure, a quick survey of the novel leaves you with the impression that A Fan’s Notes is a book about alcoholism and despair and that Exley is just another tough guy misogynist cut from the Hemingway cloth who seems to think that his drinking life is our entertainment and his muse. But it’s too easy to dismiss him as the loudest jerk in the bar, the maniac you won’t sit next to at the ball game, the part-time bigot, the cultural and literary know-it-all. And certainly Exley goes to great lengths to demonstrate that he is all these things. But writing him off as the sum of these parts is to the miss the point.
Exley spends the majority of A Fan’s Notes unsuccessfully detoxing in various clinics, shuttling between mental institutions and electro-shock sessions, carousing with other flophouse barflies, or simply comatose on a davenport shoveling Oreos into his mouth while rereading Lolita for the tenth time or watching daytime TV. By the novel’s end, he has chosen the path of semi-functional alcoholism and seems relieved to have done so. However, the affliction by which Exley is most paralyzed is not booze, but a craven desire for fame. Exley, who is perhaps a little too clever and creative for his own good (if you want proof, just check out his prose that can be simultaneously brutal and ostentatiously ornate), suffers from the conviction the world owes him something in return for his unspecified talents. And what he wants is a small modicum of celebrity. “I wanted the wealth and power that fame would bring; and finally, I wanted love—or said I that I did, though I know now that what I wanted was the adulation of the crowd, and that love was just a word that crowded so many other, more appropriate words off the tongue.” Exley is a victim of the American ideal that success and glamour are our only worthwhile values, a notion that was gathering steam throughout the last century and now has descended to the degraded cultural explosion of reality television and tabloid drivel.
Exley is at his most amusing and inventive when recounting his aspirations of fame—elaborate fantasies he cradled, cherished, and adorned for years, using them as anchors during his worst bouts of alcoholism and depression. Like your average failed author, he dreams of literary success without actually having to write. “Knowing nothing about writing, I had no trouble seeing myself as famous,” Exley writes. And in true Exley fashion, his literary career comes with a luxurious lifestyle unimaginable by even the most creative novelists. He envisions a life in Rhodesia, the only white person attuned to the suffering of the black Africans. Exley dreams of purchasing the New York Giants and building for them the world’s most impressive training facility in the improbable location of the Thousand Islands where he, as owner, entertains a host of celebrities from Ingrid Bergman and Marilyn Monroe to Edmund Wilson and Saul Bellow (none of whom I can imaging champing at the bit to hang out at a football training camp near the Canadian boarder).
When Exley is not busy indulging in these crippling fantasies instead of taking charge of his life, he is hitching his star to NFL rookie Frank Gifford, who was his USC classmate. Exley transforms Gifford into his more successful doppelganger, reading Gifford’s triumphs and his failures as his own.
Careless readers of A Fan’s Notes latch onto Exley’s fixation with Frank Gifford as evidence of the writer’s mental fragility—his transition from fandom to obsession synonymous with his institutionalization. I don’t see it this way. There is something humbling about Exley’s fascination with Gifford —It is as if Exley requires Gifford to ground him, not to elevate him. But perhaps I am the wrong person to pass judgment on athletic identification, having personally suffered through each of Serena Williams’ losses, and given myself license to celebrate her victories as if I’d won them myself.
Clearly, Exley’s main issue is an inability to let go. He clings to his fantasies, soon unable to disassociate himself from Gifford’s success. He cannot relinquish the adolescent behavior that manifested itself in his continued drinking, nor can he escape the conviction that he is due recognition for some non-existent accomplishment—for just being Frederick Exley, perhaps. As a reader you want to tell Exley to get over himself. Get on with it. Get off that damn davenport and do something. The brilliance of A Fan’s Notes is that we never get to see the moment of revelation, when Exley makes his decision to get off his ass. We simply hold it in our hands.
The book Exley created from his “long malaise” is simultaneously humorous and moving, dismal, depressing and somehow triumphant. Most of all, it is magnificently literary, routinely delivering sentences that thrill the ear and touch the heart. Exley’s complex prose is unflinching and unapologetic and manages to install in his reader an almost pathological need to stumble along with the semi-fictional Exley from barroom to barroom, institution to institution, from one morally gruesome scene to the next. Exley can be achingly funny when writing about his anxiety and megalomania, as well his psychological and physical despair, but never cheaply or inappropriately so. And he exhibits a large hearted decency, a subtle charity, for even the most degenerate of his drinking comrades, finding something valid and valuable in all of them.
So many current novels or memoirs about the triumph over various addictions are written from the comfortable, often self-righteous, distance of hard won sobriety. A Fan’s Notes is thankfully not one of these. Exley is not preachy or judgmental—he does not disapprove of his behavior from the distance of one who has come to see his errors and invite the reader to commiserate with him for his mistakes.
Although Exley never successfully battles his alcoholism, A Fan’s Notes is still a story of personal triumph. For Exley manages to overcome his crippling reliance on grandiose fantasies, his desire, as he says, “to have my name whispered in reverential tones.” And he becomes a writer, finally taking the advice of one of his USC professors, a Parisian contemporary of Hemingway’s, to heart. “While he (the professor) and others tried to talk their novels out in sidewalk cafes, Hemingway was locked up in a room getting on with the business of his life, that though he did not know Hemingway, he knew of him, as all the young Americans in Paris did, and that Hemingway proved a constant provocation to them, like furious clarion that books do not get written on the Montparnasse.”
What took me by surprise about A Fan’s Notes was that it didn’t speak to me, as I had imagined, as an athlete, but addressed head on my own conventional literary anxieties, my naïve desire for recognition for simply for putting a few words on the page. For I am not too different from every other novice novelist who after writing a paragraph or even a chapter looks up from the computer daydreaming of the New York Times bestseller list and Oprah’s Book Club. Just like Exley, I got prematurely swept up in literary acclaim: “If, according to a reviewer, ‘So-and-So had written a masterpiece,’ I quite facilely imagined myself as So-and-So. ‘Frederick Exley,’ I read over the review, ‘has written a masterpiece’; then I smiled pleasurably as, in the imperative yet chummy style of so many reviewers, half counseling, half admonishing, the astute critic added, ‘You’d better read it.’”
Exley’s confession to his fantasy is shocking because it is so obvious, so universal. While I generally stay well clear of all books about struggling artists and give books about writers and writing a wide berth, my love of A Fan’s Notes is mostly due to its brutally honest depiction of the struggle of putting one word in front of another. Exley’s biggest triumph was his ability to come to terms with the fact that he would always be the fan, never the star. For him this is a terminal condition. But who are writers if not the greatest fans, so fanatical about someone or some world that we’re compelled to, sentenced to, manufacture hundreds of pages on the subject. And Exley, understanding that he would never have any bigger fan of Frederick Exley than himself, becomes his own champion, a fanatic of his life.