Sad Sack Superman

The Olympian degradation of Frederick Exley.

Like Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf and anything by Antonin Artaud, Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes is one of those books that gets pushed on you by crazy people. I was in Munich in the early 1980s, widening my horizons on a Eurailpass, when it was pushed on me. An aging beatnik with a ragged knapsack plunked down next to me in the Haufbrauhaus and started raving about the “book of books.” He brought out a tattered paperback and thrust it at me, insisting that the volume was too important not to be passed on. When I asked the man what A Fan’s Notes was about, I expected an answer profound and mystical; instead, he fixed his bright eyes on me and said, “Frank Gifford. It’s all about this guy who loves Frank Gifford.”

A Fan’s Notes, which is being canonized this month in a Modern Library edition and whose author is the subject of a new biography by Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley, is actually more of a memoir than a novel, and is only incidentally about the former New York Giants halfback Frank Gifford. First published in 1968, the book has been kept alive by zealous readers who feel compelled to promote it, Amway-style, to everyone they meet. Read a chapter or two and you’ll know why. Written by a self-pitying autodidact for consumption by self-pitying autodidacts, A Fan’s Notes divides the world into two camps: tortured, bewildered misfits (Exleys) and serene, fair-haired conformists (Giffords). In America, Exley implies–indeed, he shouts it–a person is either a suffering poet or a cheerful drone.

I’m in pain, you’re in pain. It’s the classic invitation of the memoirist, the ploy that teams reader and writer against the world, and it’s also the classic lament of the barroom, which is where Exley’s painful story opens. While watching a televised Giants game, indulging his overweening passion for football, he collapses from alcoholic exhaustion. The breakdown occasions a jigsaw of memories: of an upstate New York boyhood dominated by a local-hero dad; of doomed attempts to make it in the straight world of Manhattan advertising; of romantic humiliations at the hands of perky centerfold blondes; and, finally, of dreamlike interludes in sadistic mental hospitals.

Where have all the anti-heroes gone? Literary dementia seems dated now, but there was a time when a month in the funny farm was as de rigueur for budding writers as an MFA is now. To be sent away was a badge of honor, to undergo electroshock a glorious martyrdom. “Was I, too, insane?” Exley asks when he’s committed. “It was a difficult admission to make, but I am glad that I made it; later I came to believe that this admission about oneself may be the only redemption in America.” This notion was once a staple of big novels (see Catch-22 or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and Exley plays it for all it is worth, ennobling himself through nausea. A rosy-cheeked suburban family seated next to him at a football game makes him want to “cut my jugular.” When he falls in love with a beautiful Midwestern girl, her “milk flecked with butter” complexion renders him impotent.

Exley is so over-rich in his descriptions of all things wholesome and American that his disgust is infectious. His prose is moist with lyrical revulsion. Autumn days are blinding in their goldenness, pretty girls suffocating in their softness, young executives crucifying in their crispness. Exley, as sensitive as a rotten tooth, can bear the world in the smallest doses only, and any extended period of consciousness forces him back to the bar, the hospital. In one chapter, “Journey on a Davenport,” he tucks himself in on his mother’s couch and goes on a sort of existential sit-down strike. “In a land where movement is virtue, where the echo of heels clicking rapidly on pavement is inordinately blest, it is a grand, defiant, and edifying gesture to lie down for six months.”

Exley’s self-loathing is really self-love. His is an Olympian degradation. His voice on the page is a rummy baritone, fat and resonant but capable of a cruel exactitude, as when he describes a girlfriend’s melting love for him. “[T]here came a point when Bunny had a kind of terrifyingly loose and constant moistness, the kind of totally loose submission one detects in a woman he has impregnated, the moist eyes, the warm moist hands, the loose moist breasts beneath the cotton blouse.” At other times Exley’s smoky eloquence turns blowsy and verbose. “Thus it was that the days of my youth flew by like violently clashing confetti.” Exley writes, in short, like what he was: a middle-aged, unpublished novelist tuning up to write his magnum opus just as soon as he finishes one more drink.

The amazing thing is that Exley’s postponement of his great work inspired a great work about postponement, a portrait of the artist as procrastinator. The drunken bore of A Fan’s Notes is never boring. He’s vibrant with resentment, alive with failure, a sad sack superman. When he gazes up from his stool at fleet Frank Gifford catching a touchdown pass, it’s a transporting thrill, a brief ascension. Exley found consolations in his sloth, among them an awe of physical transcendence. His talent for disgust and mockery was saved by a paradoxical gift for praise.

Exley’s life of splendid indigence didn’t change when his book met with wide acclaim. According to Jonathan Yardley’s Misfit, Exley didn’t become rich, just somewhat famous, though this was enough to turn his alienation into an act, a tiresome self-caricature. From the bar of Greenwich Village’s Lion’s Head pub, where he reigned as a sort of rumpled deadbeat Buddha, he attracted a circle of seedy admirers who kept him in cold beer and pocket change in return for recycled, embellished anecdotes concerning his hard-luck youth and years of wandering. He hectored friends and publishers for money, repaid people’s love for him with cold neglect, and followed up on A Fan’s Notes with two sequels, neither of which the critics deemed interesting. In Yardley’s affectionate yet dubious portrait of a man he knew only through rambling late-night phone calls, Exley was a classic one-hit wonder, a writer who never overcame his breakthrough.

The wonder, of course, is that Exley broke through at all. Yardley’s book does little to solve the mystery of how a man with no apparent self-discipline, minimal formal training, and colossally self-destructive habits managed to write a contemporary classic on his first go round. To make the job of reconstruction harder, Exley wrote few letters, rarely lived long at one address, and wasn’t given to intimate conversation. When he died of a stroke in 1992 (too early to see his adored Frank Gifford dragged from an athletic state of grace into the oily tabloid muck), he left behind no significant paper trail other than the memoirs that made his name. Yardley hunts in their margins for clues to Exley’s inner life, with modest results. He concludes, on the basis of a few short passages, that Exley was strangely obsessed with oral sex. On even less evidence he speculates that Exley may have had homosexual leanings, to which readers may feel entitled to ask: Doesn’t everyone?

Yardley’s conclusions don’t add up to much in any conventional biographical sense, and he admits as much in his prologue: “[Exley] lived on another planet, if not in another universe.” Still, Yardley’s book has value as a study of just how small and brief and enigmatic certain writers’ lives can be once you’ve subtracted their work from the equation. Exley put all he had into his books, and what he had, besides his talent, was shockingly little: a troubled heart, a bottle, an affection for the home team, and a cacophony of chemical imbalances. It’s no wonder that crazy people love him: Exley did more with less than any writer I can think of. His failure will endure.