A Fan’s Notes
by Frederick Exley
Random House, 385 pp., $4.95 (paper)
Pages from a Cold Island
by Frederick Exley
Random House, 274 pp., $7.95
Early in A Fan’s Notes, the first of Frederick Exley’s books about himself, he says that while others might inherit from their fathers a head for figures or a gold watch, he “acquired this need to have my name whispered in reverential tones.” A curse indeed, as we shall see. A little later, he describes coming to New York:
Hans Christian Andersen came to mind: I saw him come fresh from Odense in his ill-fitting confirmation suit, looking for the first time at the wonder of Copenhagen. Thinking thus of him, I made one of those wild, regrettable vows to which youth are prone: I vowed that those things, literary fame et al., would come to me—and come to me on my own terms.
It turned out, however, that it was not Exley but the football star Frank Gifford who gained the fame, and for years Exley watched Gifford in admiration and envy while his own life lurched into drink and madness. And into a stupid late-night brawl, after which Exley realizes his fate and his book and his life have some semblance of a shape:
I fought because I understood, and could not bear to understand, that it was my destiny—unlike that of my father, whose fate it was to hear the roar of the crowd—to sit in the stands with most men and acclaim others. It was my fate, my destiny, my end, to be a fan.
But real fans, we know, seldom end up writing books about themselves.
A Fan’s Notes was published in 1968, and the years have brought Exley a fame much wider than his father’s, though much narrower than that of Frank Gifford, who became “unavoidable, part of the city’s hard mentality.” Exley’s name gets mentioned, he has been asked to teach, he is something of a badge of pride for those who, like Exley, want to rescue success and fame at last from the rubble of their defeated lives. It is not, after all, only drunks and madmen who want to have it both ways, who would like to grasp the fame and yet keep the common touch, to shout encouragement in bars, to envy the still greater fame of others.
But it is a difficult set of impulses to make a life out of, as Exley’s second book, Pages from a Cold Island, makes painfully clear. It is a readable book, but it is also what it says it is and wishes it weren’t, just pages of writing. Exley is still a fan here—of Edmund Wilson, mostly, though Gloria Steinem and Norman Mailer are prominent—but his lust for fame and admiration is uncomfortably all over the place. He had, he says, worked between 1968 and 1972 on a book with the same title as this one, but it apparently was no good, or went nowhere. When Wilson died in June 1972, Exley reached out, because he was proud to …