My good friend, a fellow boater and a terrific actor, James Andreassi, turned me on to this book, A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley. Jim knows my love of American literature and as we are both NY Yankee fans, we also naturally share an interest in the NY Giant football team. Back in my college days I used to go to Yankee Stadium to see YA Tittle and Frank Gifford star in the NFL in the early 1960s.
I think Jim was surprised that I wasn’t familiar with this book but now I understand why: you won’t find it on those lists of important American novels of the 20th century. It ought to be. It’s an under-the-radar American classic. I felt the same way when I read Stoner by John Williams and Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters.
Exley describes his work as a “fictional memoir” and I sometimes wonder whether, when it comes down to it, other great pieces of writing should be similarly described. But Exley puts it right out there with self-deprecation and hilarity equally balancing the forces of life that tear away at him. No doubt he had ridden life hard and in turn was ridden, roaming between cities, women, bars and mental institutions. These experiences permeate the novel, making it almost a documentary of the beat 50s and the turbulent 60s, and an astute commentary on the chimerical American dream.
Because of his bouts with alcoholism and mental illness, the novel similarly drifts in and out of consciousness, but even at its less lucid moments captures one’s attention. His writing process is best described by himself in the novel. He goes back and forth to “Avalon Valley” a mental institution where he finally begins to put pen to paper: “… what I was doing at Avalon Valley has begun to haunt me, and taking a deep breath, I started fearfully into the past in search of answers. In many ways that book was this book, which I wasn’t then ready to write. Without a thought of organization I wrote vignettes and 30 page paragraphs about anything and everything I could remember. There are times now when, in nostalgia, I tell myself I’ll never again put down the things I did then, but I know I’m only confusing quantity with quality. If nothing else, I wrote a great deal during those months, writing rapidly, furiously, exultantly, heart-sinkingly, and a manuscript of whatever merit began, page upon page, filling up the suitcase at the foot of my iron cot.”
Indeed, there are resemblances between that “book” and this one, particularly the observation about vignettes, as he goes from one subject, a bar, a person, a city, to another. His character descriptions in particular are superlative, alive in every way. Sometimes in tone, I think of Frederick as a mature Holden Caulfield gone berserk. In fact there are several references to Caulfield in the book and the two characters certainly share a cynical view of the world. There are hints of Amory Blaine from Fitzgerald’s first novel The Far Side of Paradise (in Exley’s more lyrical, optimistic moments) but also a reminder of the admonition from Fitzgerald’s Crack Up: "Of course all life is a process of breaking down ...."
One would think by the title that this is a sports book and it is as far as it serves as a metaphor. In this regard it reminds me of the English novelist David Storey’s early 1960 novel, This Sporting Life, made into a movie starring Richard Harris, his first major screen role. I reviewed that for my college newspaper at the time, saying “The challenge of the rugby game is juxtaposed to the challenge of life. Frank accepts both and deals with them in the only manner he knows how: using brute force. Although a vigorous, powerful, and relentless symbol of strength throughout the film, he is unable to dominate life entirely.”
That juxtaposition of sport to life is evident here as well, but unlike the main character of This Sporting Life, Fred’s sporting life is that of a fan, in particular, of Frank Gifford of the New York Giants. He first comes across Frank when he’s in college at USC and naturally, Frank is playing for his college team and he is the Big Man on Campus, and is spoken of in reverential tones. Unknown to Fred, it is Frank’s girl he spots on campus, his knees buckling at her beauty, never to be his though as he is “not in the game.” It is just the beginning of his realizing that his life, no matter how far he stretches for the golden ring, will never attain the heights enjoyed by our sports heroes such as Frank Gifford. Exley’s description of Frank’s girl when he first sees her on campus as well as his first roommate at college is testimony to Exley’s descriptive powers:
“I saw her first on one stunning spring day when the smog had momentarily lifted, and all the world seemed hard bright blue and green. She came across the campus straight at me, and though I had her in the range of my vision for perhaps a hundred feet, I was only able, for the fury of my heart, to give her five or six frantic glances. She had the kind of comeliness -- soft, shoulder-length chestnut hair; a sharp beauty mark right at her sensual mouth; and a figure that was like a swift, unexpected blow to the diaphragm-that to linger on makes the beholder feel obscene. I wanted to look. I couldn't look. I had to look. I could give her only the most gaspingly quick glances. Then she was by me. Waiting as long as I dared, I turned and she was gone.
“From that day forward I moved about the campus in a kind of vertigo, with my right eye watching the sidewalk come up to meet my anxious feet, and my left eye clacking in a wild orbit, all over and around its socket, trying to take in the entire campus in frantic split seconds, terrified that I might miss her. On the same day that I found out who she was I saw her again. I was standing in front of Founders' Hall talking with T., a gleaming-toothed, hand-pumping fraternity man with whom I had, my first semester out there, shared a room. We had since gone our separate ways; but whenever we met we always passed the time, being bound together by the contempt with which we viewed each other's world and by the sorrow we felt at really rather liking each other, a condition T. found more difficult to forgive in himself than I did.”
Fred’s father, Earl, was a football star in school and between his expectations and those fostered on him by society he seemed condemned to live a life of failure, especially trying to attain vestiges of the American Dream such as finding the girl next door. He thinks he’s found her, when he meets Bunny Sue, who “had honey-blonde, bobbed hair and candid, near-insolent green eyes. She had a snub, delightful nose, a cool, regal, and tapering neck, a fine intelligent mouth, that covered teeth so startling they might have been cleansed by sun gods....she was so very American. She was the Big Ten coed whose completeness is such that a bead of perspiration at the temple is enough to break the heart.”
She is so, so perfect, though; he is totally impotent trying to make love to her. She lives a placid life in the suburbs where her father boasts the tallest TV antenna in the area to bring in far away stations. Is this to be his life too? No, he was to be condemned again, and again, becoming a vicious alcoholic, coming home to his mother and step father when he could no longer function, and then, ultimately being sent back to Avalon for treatment. He was a “repeater,” the underbelly of the American dream:
“These repeaters were the ugly, the broken, the carrion. They had crossed eyes and bug eyes and cavernous eyes. They had club feet or twisted limbs — sometimes no limbs. These people were grotesques. On noticing this, I thought I understood: there was in mid century America no place for them. America was drunk on physical comeliness. America was on a diet. America did its exercises. America, indeed brought a spirituality to its dedication to pink-cheeked straight-legged, clear-eyed health-exuding attractiveness -- a fierce strident dedication....To what, I asked myself, was America coming? To no more it seemed to me, than the carmine-hued, ever-sober ‘young marrieds’ in the Schlitz beer sign.”
The process of his returning to a modicum of sanity brings the novel back to the sports metaphor. Constantly in bar rooms or street fights, he emerges from one such fight with bruises as well as an epiphany, one perhaps delayed too long in the novel, and in his life, but climatic nonetheless:
“In a moment I would fall asleep. But before I did, all the dread and the dismay and the foreboding I had been experiencing disappeared, were abruptly gone, and I feel quiet. They disappeared because, as I say, I understood the last and most important reason why I fought. The knowledge causes me to weep very quietly calmly, numbly, caused me to weep because in my heart I knew I had always understood this last and most distressing reason, which rendered the grief I had caused myself and others all for naught. I fought because I understood, and I could not bear to understand, that it was my destiny – unlike that of my father, whose fate it was to hear the roar of the crowd — to sit in the stands with most men and acclaim others. It was my fate, my destiny, my end, to be a fan.”
He becomes an Englsih teacher and is able to express empathy: “…having attempted merely to dazzle the kids with the Bard’s poetry, with ever so much scholarly caution and hemming and hawing, I was one day starting back through the text elaborating this theory when a point eluded me, I looked up and off into the class, and my eyes came to rest on a girl who was smiling and weeping simultaneously. A stunningly salubrious and tall maiden with glittering teeth, brilliant blue eyes, and a wondrous complexion, the smile was with her a perennial characteristic – though it was not in the least insinuative or licentious. If a teacher is in the least a man, he soon comes to imagine that his female trusts spend half their nocturnal hours masturbating to his summarily called up and glamorized image; her smile had never seem to have that kind. An abstract of guileless amiability, as though her heart were large and airy and glad, hers, rather, had always seem the smile of an innocent as yet unprepared to determine what should penetrate that heart. A poor student, her countenance exuded remarkable intelligence; both her modish dress and fine carriage intimated ‘background’; when she finally surmised what I demanded by way of examination answers, I had thought her grades would improve. Above the smile on this day, above the lovely Grecian nose and vigorous colored cheeks were two great lipid pools of astonishingly blue tears. My first impression was that it was her time of the month, my first impulse to hurry her discreetly to the girls’ room. With an alarming suddenness, though, and accompanied immediately by an almost feverish remorse, the blood rushed to my face, I turned away from her, and my eyes fled back to the text: she was frightened to death of me.”
Yes, Exley was hung up on masculinity and is even misogynistic at times, with clearly suicidal tendencies in his compulsion to drink. Yes, he will never measure up to his father or Frank Gifford in sports. But merely recognizing that his student “was frightened to death of me,” is a far cry from where he began. Every step of the way, his writing, although sometimes disjointed, is lyrical, even magical at times, clearly a novel to be included in the canon of important literature of a unique American era. And ironically, over time, this one work will endure while his father’s sports accomplishments have been forgotten and Gifford’s will merely be impressive statistics one can Google. Sadly, Exley produced very little after this titanic novel but it is enough for one to take serious note of A Fan’s Notes.
|Two fans at a minor league baseball game, Bob and Jim|