Midway through Brock Clarke’s novel Exley, a character laments, “It’s a crime that almost none of you have read this book.” The book in question is A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley and if I were a gambling man, I’d lay odds that at least fifty-one percent of the people reading this review have never read the novel and a slightly smaller percentage have never even heard of it. What a crime.
To be sure, A Fan’s Notes has achieved cult status and its disciples are evangelical in the way they press the book on friends, family and complete strangers. Thinly disguised as a “fictional memoir,” it chronicles the booze-soaked life of “Fred Exley,” writer and football fanatic. It is rife with brutal scenes of alcoholic vomit, mental hospitals, electroshock therapy, and an extended "depression on the davenport" interlude. Self-loathing dominates every page; as Walter Kirn once wrote, the prose “is moist with lyrical revulsion.” The novel sharply divides readers into two camps: Love It or Loathe It. Once picked up, no one can Leave It.
Miller Le Ray, Exley’s nine-year-old narrator whose parents have just split up, loves the 1968 novel out of a sense of duty. He is connected to A Fan’s Notes in ways that are central to the conceit of Clarke’s narrative. For one thing, he was born in Watertown, the upstate New York town which is the main setting of A Fan’s Notes (it’s also home to the army’s Fort Drum, which plays a significant role in Clarke’s novel).
Most important, however, is the fact that A Fan’s Notes was the favorite book of Miller’s father. “This book is ‘my delight, my folly, my anodyne,’ my intellectual stimulation,” he tells his son shortly before he disappears. “Bud, it’s the only book I’ve read in the last fifteen years."
The father’s abrupt departure from the family is the mystery at the heart of Exley. The son believes, against all evidence to the contrary, that his father had joined the army and deployed to Iraq (after all, his parting shot to his wife was a caustic snipe indicating that he’d do just that). When the novel opens, Miller’s just learned his dad has returned and is in the local Veterans Administration hospital. On his own accord, he goes to the hospital, finds the half-alive man hooked up to a ventilator and begins reading A Fan’s Notes to him. With a child’s blinkered devotion, he believes a crazy novel written by a crazy man will save his father.
From the start, we suspect all is not as it seems in Exley, but Miller is such a persuasive narrator that we go along for the ride, no matter how confusing it gets (and Clarke does ravel himself into quite a tangle by the end of the book).
Balanced against our skepticism, we feel an almost immediate rush of sympathy for this child of a broken home. I mean, has there ever been a more heartbreaking quartet of sentences as these?
Love is not wanting the thing you love to ever end. I was in love with A Fan’s Notes, just like my dad was. And I was in love with my dad, just like I was in love with A Fan’s Notes. I wanted both of them to last forever.
Or this description early in the novel: “My dad was a big guy. His forearms were thick, hairy, sun-spotted logs. But he was sensitive, too, like a bear with hurt feelings.” There is pain and wistfulness at work here, as we see the world through the eyes of a confused, but very determined, child.
Exley is also a funny novel whose breeziness distracts from the dark heart of the story. Take, for instance, Miller’s therapist, a man Miller eventually convinces to go by the name Dr. Pahnee (a character in A Fan’s Notes). The doctor is as neurotic as his patient—perhaps even more so—and is smitten by Miller’s mother, a lawyer for a military spouse advocacy group. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from the first of many “Doctor’s Notes” which alternate with chapters narrated by Miller:
First session with new patient—M.—and his mother. Just a boy—nine years old—but with an active—active and, indeed, overactive—imagination. M. believes strongly that his father left him (M.) and his (M.’s) mother to join the army and go to Iraq. His mother believes strongly that his father left them, but not to join the army and not to go to Iraq. What is certain is that wherever the father is, he’s no longer in the family home. What is also certain is that the mother is beautiful. So beautiful that for a moment I forget that I’m here to talk to M. and not to look at his mother. When I realize that I’m ignoring my patient, I give myself a stern reprimand, mentally.
In his second session with Miller, Pahnee continues to find his mind drifting back to “M.’s mother”: I can see her in my mind’s eye: her shiny black hair, her eyes so deeply blue that they, too, look black, her angular white face, the total effect being coal placed on a taut pillow.
The therapist’s professional judgment is further called into question when he assists Miller in trying to track down the “real Exley,” a series of adventures which involve interrogating barflies and persuading motel janitors to fill in for the long-dead Exley. Based on the idiocy of his “Notes,” the doctor is more unstable than his patient.
One troublesome aspect of Clarke’s novel is the choice of literature at the center of Miller’s obsession. Exley’s self-portrait of dementia, carnality, and rage is a very adult book indeed, and is certainly too far over the child’s head for him to comprehend, even if he is in “the seventh-grade advanced reading class” at his school. Precocious is one thing, but understanding the role masturbation plays in mid-life despair is another.
By contrast, Miller’s school-assigned book (part of a government program called America on the Same Page) is “a contemporary classic about an innocent child making his way through the complicated world of adults.” Over his father’s objections, Miller reads the book anyway and shrugs when he’s finished. You’ve seen one happy childhood, you’ve seen them all. It seems Miller would rather read about seedy taverns and melancholic masturbation.
To Clarke’s credit, Miller does almost immediately capture our hearts as we watch him continue to walk down the tracks toward the approaching train. From the beginning, we suspect Miller’s world is built on illusion and that there’s more to his father’s disappearance than meets his eye. Certainly we know that all the Exleys he finds are shams and his quest to unite the author with his father will end in failure.
Illusion and disillusion are at the heart of both Exley and Clarke’s previous novel, An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England. In that book, Sam Pulsifer, the would-be torcher of famous writers’ homes, is cocooned in his version of his parents’ collapsed marriage. With a childlike insistence, he only believes what he wants to believe about his father’s “stroke” and his mother’s unstable behavior. Life is safer, and sweeter, that way.
There’s plenty of self-deceit going on in A Fan’s Notes as well, so Miller has a good role model in the “character” of Fred Exley. The depressed middle-age writer spends most of the pages fortressing himself against responsibility and reality by tossing back gallons of numbing alcohol.
The same goes for Miller in Exley (minus the alcohol part). When you retreat from reality, you seek shelter in a world of your own making. For Miller, that means believing a comatose man in a VA hospital is your father and that a homeless bum is the great writer Frederick Exley. Fed by the encouragement of a therapist who plays along because he’s in love with the boy’s mother, Miller’s tale is especially tragic when, farther down the tracks, he eventually meets up with the train. In Exley, denouement is hard, fast, and painful.
It’s especially telling that Clarke has used the current global conflict as the background for Exley since, after all, the Iraq War was largely founded on lies and illusion. In this way, Clarke implies, we’re all a little bit like Miller, searching for a savior like Exley who will tell it like it is.
Just as with An Arsonist’s Guide, we read the majority of this book knowing something is off-kilter. We suspect it’s populated with unreliable narrators, but we’re not sure how, or why, they are the way they are. Clarke’s novels are clever mysteries in that regard. We read to reveal.
Clarke ends his novel just at the moment of revelation for both Miller and the reader. We can pretty much fill in the blanks of the patchwork truths we’ve been given throughout Exley, but the final shattering paragraph of the novel has Miller figuratively plugging his ears to keep out the words which would crumble his reality. It’s a sad ending to a predominantly funny novel, but Clarke makes it the pitch-perfect final note in the story of a fan’s quest for a literary idol he’ll never find. Even Exley himself might have gotten a little misty at the boy’s plight.