A Case of the American Jitters

Last Notes from Home

by Frederick Exley
Random House, 397 pp., $18.95

A Fan's Notes: A Fictional Memoir

by Frederick Exley
Random House/Vintage, 385 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Pages from a Cold Island

by Frederick Exley
Random House/Vintage, 274 pp., $6.95 (paper)

Frederick Exley
Frederick Exley; drawing by David Levine

The appearance of Last Notes from Home and the republication of A Fan’s Notes (1968) and Pages from a Cold Island (1975) invite assessment of a curious literary career. On the evidence so far, Frederick Exley’s is not a large talent; only one of his three books seems to me a clear, if odd, success. But in various ways all three tell some of the truth about the imagination in a culture like ours, and even their faults seem instructive and touching.

Toward the end of Last Notes from Home the author insists that “I have never written a single sentence about Frederick Exley except as he exists as a created character,” which seems to repeat what he said in introducing A Fan’s Notes twenty years ago: “I ask to be judged as a writer of fantasy.” Exley must know what happens when experience seeks expression in language, the impossibility of self-revelation that isn’t also self-invention. But in his case the space between author and work often seems perilously narrow. Pages from a Cold Island in fact calls itself “nonfiction,” and anyone interested in Frederick Exley’s writings about the life and troubles of “Frederick Exley” probably hopes that they’re in some sense true, that the two Exleys are closely related, bound (at least) by the mutual irritation that, quite as strongly as affection, attaches us to our own families.

Yet decency requires a distinction between the author of these books, whom I shall call “Exley,” and his protagonist-narrator, who can be given the nickname he and others use, “Ex.” (An alert explorer of self-ironies, Exley surprisingly never explores this one—“Ex” as “former, lost, failed” or, as pronounced, “X,” the nameless man, the unknown quantity.) Ex is a mess—an alcoholic, a sometime mental patient, a man who couldn’t hold a job or a wife, a sponger off his friends, a rolling stone incurably nostalgic for his roots, a talented athlete gone to pot and reduced to fandom. The bars of every American town have their Exes, and most of them undoubtedly feel in their own way the desire that Exley uses Hawthorne’s terms for (in Fanshawe) as an epigraph to A Fan’s Notes: “If his inmost heart could have been laid open, there would have been discovered that dream of undying fame; which, dream as it is, is more powerful than a thousand realities.”

Fame is the spur, certainly, for A Fan’s Notes, a strangely powerful book which won attention and praise in the late 1960s but whose poor sales convinced Ex that it was a failure. It begins in Ex’s home town, Watertown, New York, around 1962, with Ex, in his early thirties, teaching English in a nearby high school, drinking heavily on the weekends, undergoing a divorce, full of anxiety and defiance and self-loathing. Gradually the book assembles his personal history. He is the son of a memorably gifted local…

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