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A Fan’s Notes

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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.”

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  • Eric Olsen

    excellent review Todd, thanks! I read it about 20 years ago and felt the same way you do. I kept waiting for something redeeming to happen, some revelation to make all the lying around on the couch watching football and drinking meaningful, but it never happened.

  • Joe T.

    A Fan’s Notes succeeds in the brutally honest way it portrays alienation and one man’s dance with madness. I read it as a teenager and found it life changing and even inspiring. Exley’s impetus to succeed and integrate is to produce something literary and personally worthwhile. Like a how-done-it the reason for the quest is revealed in advance, in this case the actual book residing in the reader’s hand.

    Perhaps there are a fortunate few whose pedigree, ego and conscience are strong enough to be callous to the brutal honesty and metaphorical insight Exley brings to discussion of alienation and madness. Those few might never have had to embody (particularly in 1968 America) the unyielding realization that they are genetically or culturally different than the Frank Giffords who are given the keys to the kingdom – and the madness associated with actually believing such a commerce inspired value system.

    Exley’s charm and gift is his intricate, funny and engrossing description of the journey; his keen insight into both constructive and destructive synapse jumps; and his revelation of self imposed and societal traps and punishments. Yet somehow this ultimately leads to the redemption of accomplishment – an enduring, touching and awarding winning work, the proof of which remains on my bookshelf.

  • I don’t know how to respond to Mr. Glasscock’s complaints about the redemptive or non-redemptive qualities of fiction.

    I do know that Freddy Exley’s longing to be like Frank Gifford (the pre Kathy Lee Frank Gifford, of course), together with his addictive personality and his lack of the talent he needed to succeed or even understand a changing America in the manner he wanted to — be it artistically, financially and socially — both predicted and spoofed the current 24-hour a day “SportsCenter” “Entertainment Tonight” culture, the notion that everyone’s worthless life is worthy of its 20 minutes on reality television, and the spate of self-indulgent memoirs concerning addiction and recovery.

    Most importantly, the book is, in many parts, very very very funny, and in other parts, extremely frustrating.

    Admittedly, I have not read the book in some time, but thanks to Mr. Glasscock’s review, I am certain to look at it again soon.