In Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, a fictional memoir published in 1968, the hero, also called Frederick Exley, cannot hold a job. Exley, an alcoholic, is in and out of mental hospitals, sponges off his parents, or lives at a bachelor friend’s apartment where flamboyant, sad characters drop in all day, including an Italian who sometimes believes he is a hit man.
A Fan’s Notes should have been Top of the List for our Mental Health Christmas. One year my cousin became manic from a steroid prescribed for an ear infection (a side effect). At the hospital she was not herself: she wore a bra over her sweater, sang Van Morrison’s “Days Like This” at the top of her lungs, and demanded that we bring presents for her “new friends.” And so we rather lamely distributed McDonald’s milkshakes and old books in the common room.
If only we’d had A Fan’s Notes.
Exley wittily delineates and skewers the customs and hypocrisy of the American middle class in a brilliant narrative akin to Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road and Sue Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife. Depressed Exley turns down advertising jobs before he gets them, teaches off and on at a high school, and drives from Glacial Falls to Watertown every weekend to get drunk and watch Giants games.
He is amazed by the limitations of the English department chairman and teachers. (Note: Many teachers are required to take more easy-A education classes than classes in their subject). One teacher informs Exley that he should not talk at meetings because “talking took time.”
As the year progressed I learned that due to this conspiracy of silence the department chairman was forced to carry single-handedly what were supposed to be give-and-take discussions. Knowing he was no more ignorant than those boobs seated around me patronizing him, I felt sorry for him. … Unsure of our ability to read (our ability to talk hadn’t encouraged him), he read each and every item [on a mimeographed sheet] to us…. Matchlessly vapid, the items were such that I remember only one of them, and that only because to this day I have no notion what he meant by it: The best place to make out your lesson plans is at your desk.
It’s not just teaching. It’s everything that happens to Exley. He is obsessed with football. He is the son of a local high-school and college football star. And he went to USC with Frank Gifford, though he did not know him. Exley partly identifies with him, but also hates him.
Frederick is much smarter than most of his friends. In one hilarious scene, when he visits his brother-in-law, the likable Bumpy, he notices that the photograph in the basement of James Mason as Brutus in Julius Caesar is incorrectly labeled Et tu, Brute?
“So?” Bumpy said. “Well,” I explained, “Mason played Brutus, not Caesar. That caption belongs back there under the one of Louis Calhern with his toga all bloodied and his right arm extended. Obviously at Brutus.” “Aw, what’s the diff?” Bumpy said, stuffing half a grilled-cheese into his mouth and, after a barely perceptible mastication, beginning to wash it down with a long swallow of beer. Then he looked petulantly at me, as though I were an old spoilsport; then he belched.
Bumpy is wild about a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald which Frederick recites on the site of the mental hospital where Zelda lived. “I left my capacity for hoping on the little roads that led to Zelda’s sanitarium.” Bumpy asks him to repeat it in bars.
This novel is unflaggingly male, teeming with beer, gin, football, TV, depression, hospitalizations, bachelor’s pads, and his friend’s gross-out talk about of cunnilingus (“How do you get past the smell?” asks Mr. Blue, a siding salesman who lives with a woman Exley refers to as “the USS Deborah.” ).
I tried to read it once before. I thought parts too sexist, but nowadays I feel more sympathetic to the plights of men (and it isn’t that sexist, anyway). I know how men’s minds work. Well, sometimes I do.
The writing is superb. That’s all I care about.
This is a classic.
Exley won the William Faulkner Award and the Arts and Letters Rosenthal Award.
His other novels are Pages from a Cold Island and Last Notes from Home.