The Sad But Wonderful Fan's Notes

fans-notesA Fan's Notes
by Frederick Exley (Vintage)

Ken Krimstein recommended this book for my holiday reading and I don't know whether to buy him a beer or punch him in the face. I can't remember the last time I read a book that caused such emotional discomfort, yet it both moved me and disgusted me. This fictional memoir from the pen of Frederick Exley (March 29, 1929 - June 17, 1992) was heralded an American classic by the likes of Kurt Vonnegut and James Dickey. The narrator is an anti-hero both loathed and pitied, yet hardly feared, equal parts Bukowski debauched drunkard, Donleavy's Ginger Man mooching scoundrel, and post-college Holden Caufield delusional intellectual (mirroring Exley's lifelong struggle with alcohol and own mental health issues) with the mind of a giant and a soul of damaged goods. That he possesses any redeemable characteristics would be difficult to quantify. By exposing the fraudulent American dream, he exposes all of his foibles as well, plus his longing to be famous. Suffice to say, this remarkable novel is more painful than funny.

Moreover, like his debut novel, in real life Mr. Exley was dogged by the very same psychological issues that he writes about: crushed by the weight and expectations of his father's athletic prowess (I, too, grew up in under that same long shadow); college dropout; married and divorced with children; institutionalized for his addiction and depression; drifting between New York, Chicago, Miami, Watertown, and Scarsdale; bumming off of friends and strangers; etc.

Through all the twists and turns of finding literary fame, our protagonist remains a rabidly obsessive fan of the New York Giants and their star player Frank Gifford. As a football fan myself it is easy to feel empathy for this character's weekly escape valve and longing to emulate the success of his hero. I suspect professional sport stars appeal to the gladiator gene in many men born of a certain age and era.

Released in the fall of 1968, around the time Mr. Exley's third child and first son was born with his second wife, the novel was nominated for the National Book Award. It also received the William Faulkner Award for best first novel, the Rosenthal Award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and earned Exley a Rockefeller Foundation grant. But even with the success of A Fan's Notes and additional literary triumphs, Exley would continue to struggle in real life with the bottle, divorces, the death of his infant son, and other emotional issues.

Exley's character ruminations remind me of one of my favorite contemporary authors, Tom Robbins. In fact, many of the outrageous characters littering this masterwork are framed in the same manner. The pathos and comedy of these losers -- such as aluminum siding salesman Mr. Blue and insane asylum colleague Paddy the Duke -- keep you turning the page, praying for the redemptive moment of self-realization of the sins of the narrator.

Though a Canadian film adaptation of A Fan's Notes starring Jerry Orbach (Law & Order) was released in 1972, I've not seen it. I'm looking forward to it, even with this book so indelibly stamped on my psyche. I trust it might provide some cathartic elixir to cleanse my delicate literary palette of all the stale beer. - Dusty Wright

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dusty5a

Mr. Wright is the former editor-in-chief of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and music. He is also a singer/songwriter who has released 3 solo CDs, and a member of the folk-rock quartet GIANTfingers. And before all of this he was a William Morris agent.

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