A Fan’s Notes
Pages from a Cold Island
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 admire Wilson, but also because he desperately needed Wilson to do for this book what Gifford had done for the first. One feels that desperation everywhere, though Exley himself never confronts it directly, because if he can bring it off, if by some miracle Wilson can provide him with a way to write his book, then he can have it both ways and be both a fan and famous.
Read simply as pages of writing, the book goes pretty well. Exley mixes his account of meeting Wilson’s secretary and daughter in Talcottville with commentaries on upstate New York, which is his as well as Wilson’s home, on Italian cooking, on Wilson’s life in his last days as Exley discovers it. He wonders if he can teach Memoirs of Hecate County to a group of writers in Iowa City the following fall; he notes with bemusement that nonauthor Clifford Irving gets more attention than Wilson when Irving is sentenced and Wilson buried; he reconstructs the strained relations between Wilson and his cousin, Otis Munn; he sets out Mary Pcolar, Wilson’s last secretary, and Rosalind Baker Wilson, his daughter, with brevity and clarity. Yet it never quite comes off, because the homage to Wilson is so urgently mixed with the less easily articulated desire to have Wilson save Exley’s life, give Exley fame.
Here is the beginning of Exley’s account of his day with Mary Pcolar:
My picnic proved a disaster. After we’d transferred the food to the back seat of Mary’s Impala we drove first to The Savoy in Rome, going down through The Gorge between Boonville and Rome through hamlets with wonderful names like Ava, a drive Wilson had much loved, especially in the autumn when the green pines embracing the road had so vividly contrasted with the reds, oranges and yellows of the hard maples. Mary had asked me if I minded the car radio, which Wilson had deplored—“Turn that damn thing off.”
Each detail is clear—even the redundant “green pines” is that—but it is a paragraph in flight: the picnic was a disaster, but we never know why. During the entire chapter Mrs. Pcolar is just fine, and, save for some logistical problems, so too was the occasion. Yet it was a disaster. By itself the point would hardly be noticeable, but it fits into a pattern we have gotten used to by now, more than halfway through the book. Exley has practically no ability to put himself in a scene without taking it over, so he can either write about others or about himself, but almost never the two together.
In this chapter most of what we have is Mary Pcolar, and since she is nice and telling Exley interesting things, all we have from him is that the picnic was awful, and that, we see, tells us more about Exley than about Mrs. Pcolar or the occasion. The same thing happens more openly with Rosalind Baker Wilson; Exley keeps saying he likes her as he draws a picture of someone being abrupt, abrasive, and suspicious. Although Exley never really says this, he seems to exude an air of need, and Rosalind Wilson seems to have felt this and to have become edgy: what, after all, does Exley want? He wants to know more about Wilson, but not as a professor or a journalist would want to do. Well, what then? It’s never clear, though the pattern of Exley’s unfaced need and unease is.
With Gloria Steinem, in a totally unrelated episode, we get the clues we need to read the scenes with the other women. Exley takes his role as a fan, herein identified as an interviewer, and uses it to bully Steinem and then to blame her for it:
If not certainly with the likes of me, did not Gloria move among other men with an appraising eye, thinking that that one might be okay, that this one was a real drool? Perhaps not, perhaps not, and by the time we got to the room and I’d solemnly set up my tape recorder I was feeling somewhat catty myself and spoke to her with wooden jollity.
“One of those articles said you had small boobs. You aren’t too grand in the fucking jug department, are you?”
But I could not pursue this nastiness. Quite angry, Gloria tried to come back with The Movement’s cliché reply. She tried to say, “I wouldn’t ask you how big your prick is, would I?” but, oh Lord, gentle reader, she couldn’t bring it off, she stumbled on the word prick, delicately and stutteringly substituted penis, the blood rose becomingly in those lovely cheekbones, and I smiled apologetically and thought, and I was sincere, I like this girl. I really do like this girl.
Iago might claim he really likes Othello, too. That “perhaps not” imagines for an instant that Steinem might be beyond him, and he can’t bear that. First the crude remark, then the points earned for not pursuing this nastiness, then a pursuit of it: the best she could have offered was a cliché; worse, she’s a prig; worst of all, he imagines all is forgiven him, by us if not by her, in his “sincere” confession of fondness for her.
The pattern is clear enough, though Exley is stanch in his resolve to be drunk or mad rather than see it. The experiences with Mary Pcolar, Rosalind Wilson, and Gloria Steinem were all disasters, but as one moves from women of lesser to greater forcefulness Exley becomes more frightened, more stupidly aggressive, less able to let the woman be, more insistent that she is the cause of the disaster. And more able, one presumes, unblushingly to write that blood rises in the cheekbone.
All right, then, strong women scare Exley, make him need to try to bring them to heel. But so too with men. Anyone reading Exley is bound to feel that these books would never have been written were it not for Advertisements for Myself and Armies of the Night. Knowing the comparison is inevitable Exley cannot treat Mailer as he did Frank Gifford—he catches footballs—or Edmund Wilson—he is of a different generation. Mailer does what Exley does, has impulses like Exley’s own, and is, in addition, a better writer. So Exley makes him pay, and here instead of running away from his feelings he pours them out in wanton spite:
Even recognizing that he was nursing this kind of oppressive vanity, I could not guess he’d come to write about the lost and pathetic Marilyn Monroe, or that in the process he would make the great Arthur Miller, whose Death of a Salesman will be lighting up the world’s theaters when Norman’s books are being recycled to print Miller’s words, an arch villain, or that he would seek to enlist our sympathy for his choice of subject matter by telling us—for Jesus Almighty’s sake!—that he needs two hundred thousand dollars a year to live on. But one might have guessed as much.
One need be no fan of Mailer to know the impulse behind the wild overpraise of Arthur Miller, or the almost naïve scorn of Mailer’s desire to live high on the hog.
My objections, clearly, are primarily to Exley “himself,” because in his case more than almost any other the self creates the writer. In Pages from a Cold Island he is a desperately sick person and the sickness oozes out, all over sentences and paragraphs. So there is no semblance of a whole here because the life being lived cannot face itself. The problems are fewer in A Fan’s Notes precisely because there Exley is more willing to tell the stories of how his impulse to dominate and conquer led to booze and madness even if he never makes the connections himself, or understands their cause. He did not end as a fan but as the author of A Fan’s Notes, trapped between his lusts and his rejection of them, between the urge to dramatize his plight and his refusal to alter it, between his strong feelings of sympathy for others who suffer and his inability to imagine another human being. There was, therefore, a book called Pages from a Cold Island before there was a book to fill those pages, and the result is mostly an anguished mess born of a terrible need to write some book, any book. So he must now cast out another lifeline and announce there will be yet another, Last Notes from Home. But only if he finds out what book it should be will he be able to justify what he once called “that long malaise, my life.”
Having said all this, I’d like to end with one episode in Pages from a Cold Island to show what Exley can do at his best. He is on his way from his cold island in Florida to the much colder Thousand Islands; he arrives in La Guardia with a long layover, drunk, giddy, and needing to get, first, sick, and, second, drunk again: “Even at eleven AM the first bar I looked into was jammed, and I sought another. Travelers all have stories and I could not bear to hear another.” He finds a secluded spot, but is immediately interrupted by a loud voice: “You’re from Florida! Me too!” Groaning, Exley allows himself to be bought a drink. The man was raised on Long Island, but he’d long ago “buried the folks” and “no longer recognized Babylon as that quaint village in which he’d grown up in the Thirties.” So: ” ‘When you walked through the door,’ he said, ‘it hit me like a shovel full of shit in the face that Florida was my home and has been for a quarter of a fucking century!’ ” He and Exley exchange the pleasures of living in Florida when the tourists aren’t there:
…we said that if one’s palate were up to it he could live forever, sans funds, on dolphin, pompano, snapper, snook, and crawfish; delighted in the memory of the first long chilling draught of beer following an afternoon of fishing or swimming; and most of all, with something like fluttering hearts, recalled the easy lethargic pace of the native Floridian.
The man has a daughter at Syracuse University who is now abroad, ” ‘Cause, Daddy,’—he imitates her affected lisp for me—’Florence is part of Syracuse University.’ ” The man is sure she will return “with some Guinea” who will get Daddy to open a pizza parlor for him, and Exley muses on the anti-Italian assurances of this man, himself Italian. Finally, after being rebuffed a couple of times, Exley gets him to say where he lives:
He mumbled something I didn’t catch.
“What’s that?” I was insistent.
“Panacea,” he snapped. “Panacea! I ain’t shittin’ yuh!”
Wide-eyed with mirth, I said, “P-A-N-A-C-E-A?”
But “the height of fuckin’ pretension” or not, Panacea is “Home, Exley, Home,” and soon he is off for his plane and Exley is back with his terrible homelessness.
What makes this scene so good is that when the other person doesn’t threaten or implicate him Exley can be a fan indeed and he can make us love this conversation and the man’s life that has found its peace. Later Exley learns that the place hit hardest by Hurricane Agnes is Panacea. He has the inspired notion of calling the police there. He doesn’t know his friend’s name, so he pours out all the details he does know: “Yeah, the heavy equipment business. An Italian guy. Lives right on the Gulf there, a white stucco house with a pool.” But he is drunk, and the cop at the other end has a hurricane to clean up, so he just hangs up, which is probably just as well all around. It is all so unaffected when Exley can relax and tell his stories.
This fine scene makes clear as perhaps nothing else in either book that Exley is very much in need of a subject that is not himself, or, failing that, a way of writing about himself that won’t equate self-regard and self-pity and will keep both off the page. On the evidence, there’s no reason to believe he can do this, but Exley can be good enough, and fun enough to read even when he’s awful, to make one want to hope.