Book Review: A Fan’s Notes

These are my reviews/thoughts/musings of books that I have read recently. All books rated on a scale of 1-5. Today’s review is on Frederick Exley’s 1968 fictional memoir ‘A Fan’s Notes’. 

A good book keeps the pages turning, grabbing your attention like flies on sweet paper, and reels your attention in for as long as it has the focus of your eyes.  A great book stays in your mind for a long time, making itself at home with your thoughts, and taking your mind to places it hasn’t been before. There’s a lot of things to be said about Frederick Exley’s magnum opus A Fan’s Notes–it’s dark, not the easiest read, with a self-destructive, angry and alcoholic protagonist–but first and foremost, this is a profoundly affecting book that plays with your mind and emotions long after you’ve put it down.

Exley calls this a ‘fictional memoir’ and begins his book with a note to the reader that “Though the events of this book bear a similarity to those of that long malaise, my life…I asked to be judged as a writer of fantasy”. In this note, the reader gets a taste of his style; Exley is self-deprecating, funny and incredibly depressed. One gets the feeling that this novel is likely a pretty accurate glimpse into his life, with the ‘fictional’ sections constrained to small exaggerations or details.

Over the course of the novel, we get inside the mind of Exley as he goes through his life cynically, a catastrophic failure at everything he does. He isn’t a fit for the world he lives in. He feels like a disappointment to his father, who is a local townie athletic legend. Exley is smart, quick witted and funny, with biting, disdainful observations of the people around him and a sarcastic but intelligent attitude towards the world’s rejections and customs. At the same time, he is a raging alcoholic, completely uninterested in holding down a job or a meaningful relationship with anybody, and spends significant portions of his life curled up on sofas of relatives or friends. He’s institutionalized multiple times for his alcoholism and finds himself more of a fit in the mental hospital than in his day-to-day life. He is very much an adult version of Holden Caulfield, an outcast who doesn’t want to and can’t fit into this “incomprehensible America”.

The book is simultaneously hilarious with his observations, quips and deadpan observations of day to day life–his cynical insights into his time working in the world of public relations in particular has a few laugh-out-loud moments–and tragic, as we join Exley in his recollection his downward spiral into a social pariah and misfit. The result is a book that makes the reader feel bipolar, with multiple contradicting emotions pouring out of a single page, and a lingering effect on your mind after reading it. It will make you laugh; it will also make the world seem just that much darker.

The book is written as one long tangent. We start by joining Exley, who is an alcoholic, divorced schoolteacher who cares about nothing in life except for the New York Giants and carries an unhealthy obsession with Giants star Frank Gifford, feels like he is having a heart attack as he gets ready to watch his team play on a fall Sunday. Realizing his problems with alcohol, he then explains to us in a series of vignettes, some chapters long and some just a few paragraphs, the highlights of his life, his obsession with Gifford, and where it all went wrong.

A Fan’s Notes is one of the most moving experiences I’ve had in a long time–Exley is such a talented writer and his rambling style works so well that what comes through in this ‘fictional’ memoir feels so real and so raw that you start to feel yourself looking at the world through his eyes to the point of being uncomfortable. Each character that comes in and out of his life is both a cartoon character and someone you know is just crazy enough to be real, to be out there somewhere–from fellow mental inmate Paddy the Duke (who has discovered what alcoholism is) to the cunnilingous-obsessed psychotic Mr. Blue to the beatniks sharing pints of beer and dreaming in West Village bars with Exley.

Exley is a man with many demons, but those demons serve him well in his writing, as he has clearly spent a lot of time inside of his own head, constructing darkly beautiful paragraphs. This book is an under-appreciated classic, and should be more widely known. It’s not the easiest read, or for that matter, the easiest book to summarize and talk about, but it is poignant and stirring. Once you are inside Exley’s mind it becomes very difficult to climb your way out. Frederick Exley will stay with me for a very, very long time.

Rating: *****

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