There are a great number of books out there that are about (at least in part) writers struggling with writing and figuring out how to live their lives. I think of books like Malamud’s The Tenants, Bukowski’s Post Office, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, or virtually anything by Jack Kerouac or Henry Miller. The list goes on and on. I suppose it’s no surprise, being that struggling to write and figure out how to live are what writers know most intimately.
Strangely though, as many of these as have been brought to my attention, Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes was completely new to me. I’d never heard of it before picking it from The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books for a look.
(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for George Pelacanos.)
The funny thing is that I started hearing about this book after I decided to read it. All of a sudden, people around me were talking about A Fan’s Notes without any knowledge that I intended to read it. I hadn’t prompted the discussion; it was just happening. Maybe I’d just never noticed before, but it seemed to only come up around me after I picked up my copy.
A Fan’s Notes is a pretty intimate kind of book. Presented as a fictional memoir, a character named for the author recounts the series of failures that is his life. Raised in the shadow of his father’s local-level sports fame, the character Exley grows with a desperate need for fame. However, the longer the fame he seeks eludes him, the more he vicariously fulfills that fame need through watching a famous football player he briefly met in college. In a strange way, he feels a connection with this player:
“What is this thing with you and Gifford–or whatever his name is?” she asked.
The question took me unawares, and I did not answer her for a long time. I had never before tried to articulate what the thing was, and I was fairly sure that whatever I said would come out badly and be taken wrong. But I thought I would say something. The heavy hum of the wheels was beneath us, the darkness of the cab enshrouded us, the atmosphere seemed conducive to talk. I told her about my first year in New York, how I had this awful dream of fame, but that, unlike Gifford–who had possessed the legs and the hands and the agility, the tools of his art–I had come to New York with none of the tools of mine, writing. I told her how I tried to content myself with reverie, envisioning myself emblazoned across the back of dust jackets. I told her how I had gone each lonely Sunday to the Polo Grounds where Gifford, when I heard the city cheer him, came after a time to represent to me the possible, had sustained for me the illusion I could escape the bleak anonymity of life.
Romantic failures, job failures, mental and alcoholic breakdowns resulting in multiple commitments to mental hospitals as well as shock treatment, the book moves back and forth across his life. For a book centering on a character who struggles even trying to find a way to live his life, A Fan’s Notes is remarkably sharp (as well as cutting) and focused in its insight. At one point, the character Exley starts a fight where he is beaten badly before running off and collapsing:
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 felt quiet. They disappeared because, as I say, I understood the last and most important reason why I fought. The knowledge caused me to weep very quietly, 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 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.
Given that I mentioned above how many books I’ve seen explore this theme, you might think that I found A Fan’s Notes to just be a revisit of old ground. This is not actually the case. The theme may be familiar, but Exley’s examination of it is all his own. It is ruthless and impressively crystalized. There are even quite a few moments of startling beauty inside. It may not be one of my favorite books of all time, but it is certainly a damn good one.