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 sports hero who passed up college and big-time stardom to get married, raise a family on his earnings as a lineman for Niagara Mohawk, and die at forty of lung cancer. Ex himself was a good if undersized high-school football and basketball player. He made it to college, with difficulty and not as an athlete, graduating from USC in 1953 and going on to a succession of jobs, sexual adventures, and marriage to an upper-class girl from Westchester.
In the midst of this not unusual early career, Ex collapsed. He gave up any pretense of working, went back to his mother’s house to lie for months on the couch, eating Oreo cookies and watching TV soaps, and had eventually to be put in a mental institution, not for the last time, as a paranoiac. It was in the asylum that he began to write, and after his release and marriage he continued to work on a novel that sounds something like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, one more tragedy of the defeat of the spirit by institutional conformity. At the time of the telling Ex has accomplished nothing, and his imagination devotes itself to televised sports, the window on a freedom and possibility that American life kept withholding from people like him.
At USC Ex had been a contemporary of the great, Frank Gifford, and though he never saw him play football in college and indeed only laid eyes on him once or twice, watching Gifford and the Giants, on Sunday afternoons in Watertown bars, became vital to Ex in his ruin. “Why did football bring me so to life?” is the book’s most interesting question, considerably more interesting than most of Ex’s answers, that it was “direct” or “traditional” or whatever. It of course wasn’t football itself but a yearning identification with the image of Gifford on the screen, with the way his skills “gave shape” to the player’s own fantasies, made intention into fact as Ex couldn’t do with his own writing. But there was more to it than that:
I cheered for him with such inordinate enthusiasm, my yearning became so involved with his desire to escape life’s bleak anonymity, that after a time he became my alter ego, that part of me which had its being in the competitive world of men; I came, as incredible as it seems to me now, to believe that I was, in some magical way, an actual instrument of his success. Each time I heard the roar of the crowd, it roared in my ears as much for me as him; that roar was not only a promise of my fame, it was its unequivocal assurance.
As Ex understands, the extremity of this obsession lies near to madness; but tuned down a little, it’s what drives any fan or celebrity junkie, out here where fame is hard to come by more directly, and those utterly immune to such “magic” could hardly be said to be alive at all.
But Ex’s version of such identification is extreme—the night after he saw (live, for once) Gifford get blind-sided and nearly killed by Chuck Bedranik of the Eagles, he picked a drunken fight with two strangers in Greenwich Village and nearly got himself killed. It’s the extremity, not the rather stilted writing (“alter ego” indeed!) or the familiar idea about identification, that makes the perception so disturbing. Even good writing about sports seldom confesses that fans are, however briefly and benignly, crazy, that they are not just fanciers or fantasists but fanatics, caught up in a desire that’s literally self-destructive, a desire not to be what they are—anonymous, mortal—but to be as one with fame as the religious seek to be with God. (The famous themselves are of small consequence—Frank Gifford, though he’s been on TV on fall Monday nights for two decades and is far more famous, or at least famous to more people, as a sports broadcaster than he ever was as a player, is never even mentioned in Exley’s later books; Ex simply found other people to be magical for him.) The extremity is what makes the book so expressive of what the 1960s, with their passionate, narcissistic attachments to figures and causes outside the self, were like even for the relatively sane.
Obsession of this sort is what gives a center to the larger subject of A Fan’s Notes, the vulnerability of any life to madness, and also its possible remedy, the conversion of life into imaginative acts, themselves forms of (roughly speaking) madness but ones within which a better kind of being may be intimated. Ex the jock is really an aesthete; musing on Frank Gifford and even his awkwardness of style can be expressive of something:
It occurs to me now that my enthusiasms might better have been placed with God or Literature or Humanity [than with football]; but in the penumbra of such upper-case pieties I have always experienced an excessive timidity rendering me tongue-tied or forcing me to emit the brutal cynicisms with which the illiterate confront things they do not understand.
Such verbal fumbling can at least suggest that something is fighting its way through language’s disposition toward suave distortion and lies. To say it (whatever “it” is) too well and eloquently might destroy it, and if like Ex you’re defiantly proud of what’s wrong with you, the cure of effective expression may be shamingly worse than the disease.
For both Ex and Exley, health and disease, strength and weakness, are parts of the same idea. Athleticism and its decline into drunkenness and paranoia, romance and sexual adventurism, performance and impotence, pride in family and place and the need to escape them, personal honor and a fascination with criminality—all such polarities help to portray Ex as what he calls himself and wants to be, “a self-destructively romantic man.” But they also say something about America in his time.
In the asylum Ex discovered that confirmed lunatics are ugly. “They had crossed eyes and bug eyes and cavernous eyes. They had club feet or twisted limbs or—sometimes—no limbs.” A nation “drunk on physical comeliness” had no place for such as them, or, if he could make himself and his life ugly enough, for him either. He found the gloss of modern American surfaces, the living-room chic purveyed by TV and advertising, incorporated in the person of Bunny Sue Allorgee (“allergy?” “allegory?”), the ravishing all-American beauty from Chicago who offers herself to an avid Ex but with whom he just can’t make it. Later he decides that “my inability to couple had not been with her but with some aspect of America with which I could not have lived successfully,” a repudiation which his abortive career as an aluminum siding salesman perhaps expresses more wittily.
In the madhouse he learned that admitting one’s madness, preferring ugliness to its meretricious alternative, “may be the only redemption in America,” and A Fan’s Notes ends with an appropriate “nightmare” of aesthetic confrontation, in which Ex, mistaken for a Peace Walker from his scruffy appearance, gets himself beaten up by a convertibleful of interchangeably handsome college-boy hawks in cashmere sweaters and Bermuda shorts, “the generation to whom President Johnson has promised his Great Society,” “this new, this incomprehensible America” whose middle class will never have to know poverty, defeat, disease, remorse, or ugliness, and hence never need creative passion.
This was a potent vision in 1968, but Exley’s second book, Pages from a Cold Island, couldn’t find much to say about the new America. It’s a portrait of the artist at loose ends, unable to pursue the fame that A Fan’s Notes brought teasingly near but didn’t quite confer. Ex is now a minor man of letters who has won awards, gotten to know some of his literary confreres, been invited to teach at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and so on. He can’t finish his new book, called Pages from a Cold Island but evidently not the book we are reading. He lives mostly on a warm island, in Florida, drinking steadily in the bar next to his hotel, while outside golden teen-agers are boozing and getting high and, farther away, the McGovern campaign is collapsing. But public events are not Ex’s concern; what continuity the book has comes from his obsessive pursuit of Edmund Wilson—not the man, who has recently died and whom Ex could never contrive to meet anyway, but the career, the fame, the aura of greatness Ex hasn’t achieved for himself.
The odd-sounding substitution of Wilson for Gifford derives from Ex’s keen sense of the mana of locale. In Last Notes from Home he takes a horrified pride in knowing that the Dulles brothers were Watertown boys too, and in A Fan’s Notes he was astonished and pleased to learn that Wilson’s upstate town of Talcottville was only a few miles south of Watertown. Now he pursues various survivors of “the legendary critic”—his wife and daughter, local friends—seeking verbal and physical relics of such sanctity. (At one point he asks for, and is refused, one of Wilson’s walking sticks.) Exley had been writing an article on Wilson for the Atlantic, and it seems too clear that Pages from a Cold Island is largely a conflation of that piece with another, for Playboy, on Gloria Steinem. Wilson affords Ex an occasion to speculate on literary fame, and Steinem, who he notes became well known despite humble origins not unlike his, allows him to examine his own nervousness about feminism, the New Politics, and his rather alarming tendencies toward misogynism.
But Ex’s reports on Wilson, Steinem, and the other greats and semigreats he’s met, seen, or lived near don’t advance the points made earlier, with less effort, through Gifford the football star. And otherwise the book is a farrago of personal odds and ends—not very original critical views of Nabokov, Mailer, Kate Millett, and others, a disapproving comparison of Ben Gazzara with Brando, favorite recipes and menus in restaurant prose (“great bowls of salad with chunks of tomato, fresh mushrooms, anchovy, Bermuda onion, and Italian dressing garnished sumptuously with Parmesan cheese”), and touring guides (“From Snow Ridge one motors to Houseville and up into Martinsburg…and at the latter one begins a miles-long descent into the idyllic, shaded, brick and clapboarded village of Lowville, the county seat of Lewis County, where one again picks up the main Route 12 north….”). One looks in vain for signs that Ex is kidding us or himself; the book is a kind of vacuum sucking in whatever language may be nearby, or anecdotes about people Ex met in bars or airports, about the wondrously sexy girls he met and made, about the cozy cameraderie of watering holes like his local in Florida.
It’s a sad, baffled book, hard not to take as evidence of a talent in dissolution from rather ordinary causes. Near the end of it Ex quotes from a letter written to him by his older brother, a career soldier, who rebukes Ex’s confession of being deeply afraid of life by saying, “I do not accept your fears.” Whatever their validity elsewhere, in this book they don’t seem acceptable either, and the reader may be tempted to endorse what Ex amusedly calls Colonel Exley’s “military solution”: “Get off the sauce!”
He isn’t yet off it in Last Notes from Home, which is full of hard drinking, remembered sex, and general irresponsibility. Whatever may have happened to Ex since the 1970s isn’t in the book, which he says he’s writing in 1978 and which begins in 1973, before Pages from a Cold Island was finished. But Last Notes from Home, though full as ever of digressions, has a story of sorts to tell.
Ex visits Hawaii in 1973 to be with his brother, the colonel, as the latter lies dying of cancer. On the long flight he falls in with two familiar but vivid types, his seatmate Jimmy O’Twoomey, an aging boozer and professional Irishman from Dublin, and Robin Glenn, a gorgeous and very obliging flight attendant. Robin, it turns out, has a profitable sideline as a high-priced Honolulu hooker and mistress to a rich businessman; O’Twoomey, supposedly a PR man for the Irish Hospitals Sweepstakes, seems on closer acquaintance to be a high official of the IRA Provos and also, he says, an Irish peer, though barred, as a citizen of Eire, from assuming his seat in the Lords.
As Ex suffers through the death of “the Brigadier,” as he’s called his brother since childhood, he gets ever more involved with Robin, who determines to marry him, and with O’Twoomey, who’s not too busy with his secret arms deals to set Robin up in the travel business and hold Ex in princely captivity on Lanai, hoping to get him dried out and force him to marry Robin and finish Pages from a Cold Island.
Into this comic thriller Ex as usual unloads whatever happens to be on his mind. A travelogue on Punchbowl Cemetery; critical remarks about Gunsmoke, Hawaii 5-0, Edna Ferber, Joyce, and Hemingway, among others; and disquisitions on the Korean War, the internment of the Nisei in World War II, the My Lai massacre, high-school football coaching, the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr., the Women’s Movement—no subject catches him without an opinion, however commonplace. But the story is full of surprises. O’Twoomey, it turns out, is not in the IRA at all—he’s just a “filthy rich loony” who has read too many espionage novels and wants badly to be a character in Ex’s book. The Brigadier died not from cancer but from the physical and moral attrition of his terrible work for Military Intelligence in Vietnam, where he may even have done the targeting for the My Lai operation. And Robin is another of the female hysterics and fantasists who have dogged Ex all his life; her stories about her well-to-do background and unceasing sexual victimization—by her father when she was thirteen, by the janitor of her boarding-school dorm, by an insatiable Ivy League quarterback—are all lies. But while Ex recognizes her as just another “brute American male fantasy of the cornbred princess,” he also learns to take her as an interesting, touching, dangerous eccentric like himself, whom he, after their weird marriage (she wounds him with a barbecue fork on their wedding night), can resolve both to “defeat” and to learn to live with, maybe even love.
Last Notes from Home is very funny moment by moment, but it’s clearly not the kind of book that A Fan’s Notes was and Pages from a Cold Island was intended to be. In them the recognizable details of life (or “life”) had to compete with the power of storytelling to revise life and make it work better; but now storytelling seems to have won out and life to have largely gone elsewhere. The dust jacket of Last Notes from Home calls it not “a fictional memoir” (the subtitle of A Fan’s Notes) but simply “a novel,” and that does seem to describe its effect. Ex’s adventures in Hawaii and the people involved in them sound like entertaining fantasy—somewhat desperately constructed to keep the book going. The frisson of embarrassed hope that some of it really happened is mostly missing.
What does survive is Ex’s voice, now considerably more fluent and surer of its effects but still suggestive of the character he’s played all along. That character is familiar in its general outline but different enough from its literary antecedents—in Henry Miller, Mailer, Hemingway, Thurber, Céline, and others—to be interesting in its own right. The American macho man is well enough known; the bars, as I’ve said, are full of them, in the pink or sinking fast, telling their tales of prowess, real or invented. And Ex is made of such materials, with his deplorable attitudes toward women, his unsympathetic views of blacks and Asians, his readiness for physical and verbal violence, his love of heroic images while suspecting that real successful people are mostly crooks or phonies. But Ex endearingly doesn’t quite fit this role, much as he wants to. He’s also thoughtful, literary, sensitive inside—born ten or twenty years later he might well have been a draft resister, a hippie, or a radical revolutionist. But he’s too old for social justice; he hasn’t an ideological leg to stand on; he couldn’t care less about what we’re supposed to feel about this and that. He is, I suppose, just a recalcitrant, unaccommodated man, wanting more than there is or ever was to be had. It’s good to hear from him again.
January 19, 1989