Tag Archives: celebrity and fame

Exley’s legacy – and ours

16 Nov

Last month, while in the grip of COVID and with little else to occupy me, I picked up my dog-eared copy of Frederick Exley’s classic novel, A Fan’s Notes and began happily re-reading it. For those who’ve never had the pleasure of experiencing the book, it’s perhaps the classic story of young manhood, of a life lived not so much gracefully as …. well … undignified.

Occasionally, one comes across a book like Exley’s – a tale that hits those familiar notes of one’s own feelings and yearnings and even experiences. And so, I decided to lose myself once again in Exley’s lyrical prose, detailing “that long malaise, my life,” of alcoholism, madness, and the American Dream gone awry.

This was Exley’s life, related to the reader in tones of dark humor, a man who hungered for fame, but felt he was doomed to a life of anonymity, a mere spectator, cheering the accomplishments of others.

Venture up to Exley’s hometown of Watertown, N.Y., where much of this novel takes place, and you can find his simple grave marker bearing the words: IT WAS MY FATE, MY DESTINY, MY END, TO BE A FAN.                  

Exley was born in this remote upstate New York burg in 1929, the son of Earl and Charlotte Exley, the former a fine athlete and larger-than-life figure, at least among the brethren of his hometown. That Exley would grow up in the shadow of his father is among the central themes of A Fan’s Notes.

We are introduced to Exley drinking beer on a Sunday afternoon in a barroom before a television set awaiting the start of a National Football League contest featuring his beloved New York Giants. Exley is a fan, of the team and its star player, Frank Gifford. It’s here where Exley’s perceived near-death experience sets the stage for the rest of the book.

For Exley, Gifford represents the fame he’ll never know. That he has formed an attachment to Gifford, the campus hero with whom he had a brief, tense encounter at USC, the college they both attended in the early 1950s, is part of the story. Gifford serves as Exley’s kind of alter ego, his funnel to glory and worlds he can only hope of achieving.

For Exley’s life is one long roadmap of failed jobs, bad relationships and marriages, stints in mental institutions. His days otherwise filled with drinking and watching football as he copes with his own unrealized dreams of literary fame. Remarkably, for all his failures and giant missteps, his jaded outlook on life, Exley demonstrates incredible insight, and at times even sensitivity, of the human condition, through his writing.

Like many memoirs, the reader can see Exley as a figure who wanted something more. But unlike these other stories of triumph over great hurdles, Exley’s is one of one ignominious defeat after another.

What did I long for? At twenty-three, I of course longed for fame. Not only did I long for it, I suffered the singular notion that it was an heirloom passed on from my father.     

He recalls his younger days in New York, hopeful times when he sat in barrooms, dreaming his dreams, a man apart from others, awaiting the fair maiden who never arrives. In Chicago, his life takes a turn for the better, when he lands a plumb job doing public relations work, traveling the country by rail. Evenings are spent hanging with other striving young men of the city, drinking, plying their male charms with the many available women.

It’s in this middle portion of the book where he meets a young woman, a dream girl, who represents everything he thinks he wants or should want. But Bunnie Sue is a mirage, a dream gone awry, an allegory of the bourgeoise existence he realizes he can never achieve or want. The scene of Bunnie Sue’s father proudly showing off his remote-control garage door opener to Exley and repeatedly opening and closing the door is a hilarious and unmistakable jab at middle class, suburban life.

Back in the book’s first chapter, an older Exley at the cusp of middle age, anxiously awaits the start of the football game and experiences what he fears might be a heart attack. Taken to a nearby hospital and afraid of dying, a chiding nurse assures him he is having not a heart attack, but a bad physical reaction to a long weekend of heroic drinking sans food. Here, an attending physician asks of Exley if he’s Earl Exley’s father, a man the doctor recalls as a good man “and tough too.”

It was the latter that got to me, said as it was in such a way as to indicate that my father’s son might not be so tough.

There are numerous references to his father, including a likely fictional episode in which Exley accompanies him on a trip to New York to track down Giants head coach Steve Owen to set up an exhibition between his dad’s semi-pro Watertown team and the Giants. Exley, though a child, can see that the proposed game is preposterous, though he of course doesn’t utter such words to his father.

I do remember that Owen, too, thought the idea of such a contest ridiculous. Worse than that, my father had already been told as much by mail, and I think that his having made the trip in the face of such a refusal struck Owen as rather nervy, accounting for the uneasiness of the meeting. On Owen’s leaving I did not dare look at my father. It wasn’t so much that I lived in fear of him as that I had never before seen any man put him down, and I was not prepared to test his reaction to a humiliation which I had unwittingly caused.

The book is sprinkled with eccentric and interesting characters who serve no other purpose, I suppose, than to make his life bearable. Among them is Exley’s friend, The Counselor, who like Exley, has not wholly embraced the American Dream. The counselor, a brilliant lawyer, who is eventually disbarred, opens his home to a parade of outcasts and oddballs. It’s here where Exley spends his days on The Counselor’s couch, reading, drinking, and getting to know some of these visitors, among them Mr. Blue, a slippery door-to-door aluminum siding salesman, with an obsession for cunnilingus and with whom Exley accompanies on his sales calls.

Early in the story, Exley makes solo trips to the Polo Grounds when Gifford is a young player in the full flower of gridiron talent and reaping the sort of fame in the great city of New York of which Exley can only imagine. Years later, with Gifford an aging player, Exley makes a final trip to Yankee Stadium, where the Giants now call home, and witnesses the famous Bednarik hit, the vicious tackle that knocks out Gifford – a cruel, sad reminder of his own mortality. (You can find it on YouTube.)

A Fan’s Notes is perhaps not for everyone, notably women readers. Much of the focus is certainly on football and male escapades of drinking and sex from a world of more than a generation ago – the 1950s and 1960s – when women were mostly excluded from the front ranks of society. Indeed, it wouldn’t be unfair for a reader to conclude that Exley was perhaps a misogynist. Or does he portray himself as such to remind us his utter failings as a human being?

Still, it’s a book that gripped me from the time I first read it at age twenty-two and perhaps unavoidably, a story of which I strongly identified, and continue to identify, even if I didn’t experience all the misadventures and dark episodes of Exley’s life.

What is interesting to note is that the very fame Exley desired, and which he never thought he would achieve or perhaps deserved, did come to him with A Fan’s Notes, a critically acclaimed, award-winning story that remains a cult classic.

That it never became the best seller of more widely known and lesser works of literature is perhaps the cruelest joke of all. But if the joke is on Exley, he probably expected it, maybe even embraced it.

He would complete just two more books in his life to wrap up the trilogy he had set out to write, neither of which approached the richness, the full storytelling of his first effort. To say that Exley was mostly an unwriting writer, a one-book wonder, is probably on the mark.  But my, what a wonder that one book is.

Mike Reuther is a freelance writer and the author of numerous works including Baseball Dreams, Fishing Magic, The Baseball Losers, and Write the Darn Book. He makes his home in central Pa. His author website is https://www.amazon.com/Mike-Reuther/e/B009M5GVUW

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