At first Frederick Exley’s 1968 fictional memoir, A Fan’s Notes seems as if it might read like Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. I read Exley’s sometimes excruciating novel after reading an essay on the book in Swink, a refreshing new literary magazine.
By all accounts Exley’s bio sounds Miller-ish: In Swink, David L. Ulin describes Exley as “an unregenerate freeloader” who for many years “didn’t even have an apartment, but rotated among friends and relations as a semi-permanent guest.” Such a description evokes the romance of Miller bumming around 1930s Paris, so vividly portrayed in Henry & June.
But bumming around is where the similarities end. A Fan’s Notes is a self-revelatory memoir, much like Miller’s Tropic; however, whereas Miller takes up a tone of fuck-everything joie de vivre, Exley falls into unironic self pity. Exley becomes too aware of his literary pretensions, and yet, doesn’t seem to take them ironically.
“I was certain, though,” Exley writes, “that in writing of myself I could find much to pity, and that there wouldn’t be a single episode relating to myself that didn’t sadden me.”
If sincerity makes bad poetry, it also makes bad prose, and an even worse character. The Exley of A Fan’s Notes doesn’t seem to deserve the pity he craves. He’s revealing himself, but without the insight of revelation, without an impetus to change. Throughout the book he craves fame at the level of the former New York Giants football star Frank Gifford. He wants to achieve such heights through writing, but scarcely writes a word. If A Fan’s Notes was meant to be an assault on America’s craving for the bitch goddess Success, it falls short; literary America had already gotten the message, first with F. Scott Fitzgerald, and then with Miller. Exley was a latecomer to that complaint.
To me, A Fan’s Notes is a period piece by a Henry Miller wannabe, one who almost seems manufactured at the Playboy Mansion, a Playboy magazine image of Miller, the guy who bums around, scores with several women, critiques fame, because life is more than a football game, and yet craves nothing more than fame, a man who wants to be a celebrity, without anything for people to celebrate.
At best, as Ulin notes, Exley’s book serves as a strong warning to wannabe writers: writing’s not a lifestyle, it’s a matter of work. In one key scene Exley goes to a “writers” bar, only to come to the realization that real writers, as Ulin notes, “are at home working, rather than talking about it through a haze of liquor and cigarette smoke.”Powered by Sidelines