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Exley, Frederick 1930–

Exley is an American novelist. A Fan's Notes and Pages from a Cold Island are the first two books of his planned "fictional autobiographical trilogy." (See also CLC, Vol. 6.)

(The entire section contains 3132 words.)

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Exley, Frederick 1930–

Exley is an American novelist. A Fan's Notes and Pages from a Cold Island are the first two books of his planned "fictional autobiographical trilogy." (See also CLC, Vol. 6.)

Derek Mahon

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[A Fan's Notes is] a work of depth and seriousness—a moving, richly humorous record of humiliation and perseverance. Perhaps only in tightrope America, where to trip once is to die more than a little, can one immediately recognise loneliness as a metaphysical condition. This, almost, is what Exley does, with a bitterness, a wild obscenity and a slow undertow of unkillable love that recalls Céline. He is conscious of other American masters (Melville, Scott Fitzgerald), but he is 'literary' only in the sense that anyone who writes is literary now. Exley-the-narrator seeks love and fame; like Gatsby, he believes in the green light of American romanticism; and he finds ashes. Love is blonde Bunny Sue with her butterscotch thighs and sexual expertise, and her mental vacuousness. She lives at Heritage Heights, Chicago. All he can do is look. Fame, too, is for looking at, despite his ambition as a writer. It happens on TV screens: a few have fans, but most are fans of the few. Exley has a dream in which he fights with a younger man, a representative of 'the generation to whom President Johnson has promised his Great Society; the generation which will never know the debilitating shame of poverty, the anguish of defeat, the fateful irony of the unexpected disease'; and as he loses, he sees that the idea of remorse has no place in the young man's dialectic. It's a painful lesson. (p. 155)

Derek Mahon, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1970; reprinted by permission of Derek Mahon), January 29, 1970.

Stanley Reynolds

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As a work of art [A Fan's Notes] is rambling, unclear, repetitious, and written in that curious overblown American style exemplified by the now famous remark of the US Ambassador to the Queen about redecorating his house and 'encountering elements of discomfiture in the refurbishing'. The effect here is rather like getting button-holed by a drunk in a bar who grips you by both lapels, breathing whisky and polysyllables into your face, and never uses two words where he can possibly find 10 that'll do. Indeed, one American critic found this pompous, drunken prose pleasing, but then there is no available means of data-computing the elements of individual selectivity processes or, for that matter, no accounting for tastes. The book does tell us something about one neurotic American's corruption and near-destruction in pursuit of fame and success…. The dream is so strongly believed in that it is followed into real madness. Jobs, family, friends, everything is sacrificed to the dream of fame, with increasingly destructive drunkenness the only way of sustaining the false faith in one's talent. (p. 158)

Stanley Reynolds, in New Statesman (© 1970 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), January 30, 1970.

Richard P. Brickner

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[Exley leads a] trouble-seeking, trouble-rich existence [in Pages From a Cold Island]. He is always putting, indeed pushing, his foot in it. Everything with him is more than enough, or less than enough; there is no unqualified enough. But as he describes his embarrassing, often comic, occasionally joyful meetings with the strangers he drags or tickles out of the blue, as he tells of the intimacy with the strangers that seems to constitute most of the intimacy he knows, he reminds us that a large part of the trouble he discovers is trouble we, too, have had, and that much of the rest is trouble we haven't the nerve to seek. Most of us have adversity thrust upon us; Exley achieves it.

He makes the most of this achievement in his books. He is a kind of redeemer, exonerating our mischievous wishes, and less frequent acts, while experiencing them. He operates with a helpless force of Id that carries us, as readers, beyond embarrassment for him and for our own desires and crudities, to a state of amused, relieved acceptance. It is easy to imagine that if everyone behaved like Exley, the world would become unpopulated mud; but the author acting in our place makes it possible to see that our fear is usually greater than it need be. Exley does for us the writer's job. Above all, however, he is obsessed with literary courage and performance in continuing the story about writing his own biography.

Appropriately, the stranger who preoccupies Exley most in Pages From a Cold Island is Edmund Wilson, whose death marks the beginning of the book….

Both Wilson and [Gloria] Steinem, in a dreamlike-lifelike relation that only a novelist of genius could make convincing, are involved in the very viability of Pages From a Cold Island. When Wilson dies, Exley happens to be reading Memoirs of Hecate County in order to decide if he should teach it at Iowa—the Iowa job undertaken because he has been unable to finish writing his own book. And Exley believes Steinem will somehow show him the way out of the unrelieved desolation that has characterized his abandoned first draft. (p. 6)

The eventual interview … [with Steinem] is strained. But Exley makes it funny, and metaphoric for a lot of the human intercourse that takes place under far less artificial circumstances. Further on he uses Steinem to help make the point that ultimately unifies his book.

After the Steinem episode, it's back to Wilson…. Exley doesn't say so, but it's as if he feels that every moment and every minor fact of Wilson's 77 years had a point, all the points collecting in a magnificent accumulation of coherence—in contrast to the alcoholic blowsiness, assaultiveness, indiscipline, error of his own life. Wilson, as he is presented, controlled people as well as all kinds of information; Exley is controlled, and most of what controls him is out of control. He has spent three periods in mental institutions. (pp. 6-7)

Unruly, brimming over with more than enough love, self-abasement, envy, Exley is nonetheless admirable. He has the courage of his obsessions. Like Wilson, he is sui generis, and he suffers for it. What's more, very few people who behave the way Exley does have his clarifying gift. He exposes, he is the writer. He sets himself apart from public figures like Steinem, by holding "with Emerson … that one speaks to public questions only as a result of a weary cowardice that has so debilitated his energies he is no longer able to do his own work or rest easy with the painful prospect of articulating his own demons." Exley has found a purpose for his suffering, and he embraces us with it to our benefit. (p. 7)

Richard P. Brickner, "Redeemer of Mischievous Wishes," in The New Leader (© 1975 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), May 26, 1975, pp. 6-7.


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A Fan's Notes is both a funny and a sad book, exploring the American obsession with "making it." It contains some splendid writing, a host of memorable tales and character sketches, and, above all, a sense of a man who has lived and suffered. At times the book tends toward inflated prose and overdrawn scenes and sections (the chapter on "Mr. Blue," for example, is not important enough to warrant such space), and we do occasionally grow weary of the self-deprecating Exley persona, but as a whole, A Fan's Notes is an unmistakable achievement.

At one point in Pages from a Cold Island Exley tells us that some readers of his first book expressed doubts that he would produce anything more because of the exhaustive nature of that initial performance. Their doubts were not entirely groundless, for although Exley has written a second book, the more we read of it, the more we begin to feel that he has already said all there is to say about himself….

Exley tries too hard to impress us with the significance of the moment. And often, despite his lengthy efforts and his tough, no-holds-barred tone, he fails to convince us that the moment really has such significance….

Since Edmund Wilson is one of Exley's literary heroes, it is not surprising that some of the best passages in the book focus on Exley's visit to Wilson's upstate New York home and his conversations with Wilson's secretary Mary Pcolar. But even in the Wilson sections we feel that Exley is working at too high a pitch. His awe of Wilson inspires him to produce gushing and embarrassing passages noting his sense of loss and despair. He reminds us that Wilson never made the cover of Time and that his books never sold as well as those of Harold Robbins and Jackie Susann. I would imagine that Wilson might have found some solace in these facts of literary life. Of Wilson's stature and value there is no question: to read him was both a joy and an education. But we do wonder what it is about Wilson and his work that stimulates Exley. Since he spends so much time mourning him, it is odd that he is never very specific about his passion.

A Fan's Notes was an intense, deeply felt book. By comparison, Pages from a Cold Island is slack, gossipy, and often petty. The troubled, defeated, comic narrator of the earlier book has grown coarse and loud. The new book is very readable, but from Exley we expected far more. At one point, he quite rightly accuses Mailer of posing and posturing, but he obviously fails to see these very elements in himself. (p. 1004)

Ronald De Feo, in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1975; 150 East 35th St., New York, N. Y. 10016), September 12, 1975, pp. 1003-04.

C. Barry Chabot

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While Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes envisions a culture every bit as inhumane as we find elsewhere in contemporary fiction, his novel represents a significant turn. Exley's America may fail and brutalize him, but he comes to momentary recognitions of his own not insignificant failings. Simply, unlike his fellow protagonists, Exley in A Fan's Notes carries the burden of guilt; indeed, he at times equates remorse with the very conditions of humanity…. Exley cannot always sustain an awareness of his own complicity in the sufferings of this world and often is overwhelmed by his rage at a callously indifferent America. Nonetheless, the significance of Exley's fragmentary and tentative introspective recognitions probably leads beyond A Fan's Notes and suggests a bad faith pervasive in much recent fiction.

Exley begins bumptiously enough. He desired "nothing less than to impose [himself] deep into the mentality of [his] countrymen."… Watching New York emerge as he stood on the prow of an approaching ferry, the city's "golden shadow on the water was like an arm stretched forth in benediction, promising that it would deny [him] nothing."… But the promises prove illusory. Whatever its allure, New York steadily resisted Exley's furious courtship. Rather than being hailed as a true son of the city, Exley found only frustration and his dreams of fame gradually curdled into the waking nightmare of a rage "induced by New York's stony refusal to esteem [him]."…

Frank Gifford and the New York Giants provide the only solace in this first assault on New York. Exley locates personal failure as one of the reasons for his passionate attachment to Frank Gifford and the Giants. (pp. 87-8)

One reason Exley does not envy Gifford his remarkable success is that he eventually sees success within America as illusory. The ironic interlude with Bunny Sue, Exley tells us, proved "a time when more than any other I felt at one with my country."… In a way, the narrative transforms Bunny Sue, "that American girl" … and "most insistent seducer" …, into a metaphor of the culture she epitomizes for her hapless admirer. Despite her voluptuous enticements and promises of gratification, which echo those of New York's "golden shadow," Exley cannot couple with her—he is impotent. (pp. 88-9)

Success in Exley's America, then, means not fulfillment but emasculation. This hollows out the tokens of success, rendering them enticements which only entrap their unwary pursuers. The promised freedom imprisons the ardent within the tight circle of the obligations their attainment entails. (p. 89)

In this way, Exley's failure to couple with "that American girl" becomes emblematic of his interactions with all others. Just as he instinctively refuses to mingle with that womb, just as he withdraws from the apparently spurious enticements of America, Exley consciously withholds himself from most humans. (p. 90)

Exley's social vision … hardly distinguishes him from his colleagues. His America is as relentlessly superficial and dangerous as Mailer's, Pynchon's, or Vonnegut's. Likewise, his instinctive, self-preservative withdrawal from it replicates theirs. A Fan's Notes makes its decisive contribution elsewhere. For all his self-protective gestures, Exley does not, like other protagonists, exempt himself from his critique. By embedding the evolution of his rage at America within his gropings toward personal understanding, Exley seems more alive to the necessary ramifications of his vision and its potentially seamy consequences. As we move away from the social vision and approach the personal level, the special import of A Fan's Notes becomes available.

In his initial need to crash the consciousness of New York, Exley feels a paternal inheritance: "I suffered myself the singular notion that fame was an heirloom passed on from my father."… Before descending upon New York, he and his USC colleagues cynically concoct a resume embodying an outrageously exalted self-image. While walking down Park Avenue to the first job interview earned by his spurious identity, Exley notices the incongruity of his suit. His discomfort increases quickly, for he recognizes that the interview could involve questions based on the resume:

That was as close to the interview as I ever got, as close to that or any of the interviews my friends had worked so passionately to get me. For suddenly I saw my father … he rose before me as I had seen him last—in his casket….

The image of his dead father haunts Exley and stays for now his courtship of New York.

If the father now slows the quest, he initially generated it. Exley's father was that most pathetic of heroes, the small-town athlete who for one reason or another never leaves the scene of his youthful triumphs. (pp. 90-1)

In Exley's own … courtship of New York we can see both an emulation of and competition with the father, an attempt at once to complete the father's project and better it….

A Fan's Notes offers a powerful image of a boy deeply eager for private confirmation from a loved father. (p. 92)

Exley's complex and anguished relationship with his father also prefigures that with America. Exley stands before the United States with the same desires, same ambivalences, and same grievances he had previously directed toward his father. New York stonily turns aside his advances no less consistently than his father seemingly denied him the longed-for recognition. In both instances Exley reacts to a felt humiliation with hot outrage. (pp. 93-4)

In the silence beyond the final word of A Fan's Notes the novel itself gets written. With its publication Exley returns to the world of men seeking confirmation of his vocation and his transformation from fan to fledgling star. Exley strives again to wedge for himself some certain place in the consciousness of New York, and if he succeeds, he will not only be transformed, not only assume and complete his father's quest, but also figuratively transcend his own mortality to live on in the consciousnesses of his readers. Therefore, despite his protestations, Exley does not withhold himself once and for all from others. Rather he withdraws from the world and its work only to come back, to offer it a gift he hopes it will prize. Most simply, he absolutely needs something out there; he hungers for recognition—from his father, from New York, from the America he claims to scorn…. That fate is not simply anonymity, but utter selflessness. (pp. 96-7)

As A Fan's Notes comes to a close … Exley shoulders his personal responsibility for the cultural brutishness he has analyzed in such anger. Thus implicating himself in his own critique, Exley accepts sin and remorse, transgression and guilt, as inescapable baggage in human life. Put another way, Exley eventually sees the very capacity for feeling guilt (not guilt itself) as the grounds of our common humanity. Without that capacity culture itself is an impossibility. Exley's more basic recognition—namely, that selfhood is necessarily born in, and only in, relationships, that it exists in-between, not internally—forces his acceptance of liability for and to others. In abandoning essentialist ideas of identity for an interpersonal one, Exley must also recognize that we must all be in some degree responsible to others, hence the radical need for a capacity for guilt.

These intertwined beliefs convert A Fan's Notes into a powerful if oblique commentary on much other recent fiction. The novel demystifies the saving distance so many protagonists carefully place between themselves and a malevolent America. If selfhood necessitates relationships, that distance will cruelly become a prison within which they wither. Moreover, in most fiction that distance is at least implicitly moral, for it sets the protagonist apart from the solely external sources of moral corruption. If Exley [reasons] aright, however, in the very attempt to exempt themselves from the sink of American society, these protagonists necessarily pain and diminish those they leave behind, turning hollow any pretentions to moral superiority; their serenity of conscience becomes a construct of monumental bad faith. In almost every way, then, A Fan's Notes calls into question the generative assumptions of much contemporary American fiction.

But Exley himself cannot always sustain his difficult, alternative vision. The detachment and need hover unevenly in A Fan's Notes, almost as if Exley cannot finally bring himself to face those twin humuliations—his guilt and need for others. Despite his accumulated knowledge, we last see Exley yet again refusing "to be drawn into the world's work."… The new vision, however, is not completely repressed, for it returns as a nightmare. Rather than turning his back to others as he does each day, in the nightmare Exley finds himself running toward his tormentors. He preaches to them the necessity of living "the contributive, the passionate life" …; he wants to restore to them the emotional heritage, the ache of remorse, necessary if they are to reclaim their humanity. The nightmare only troubles the conscience of an Exley made uneasy by the repression of his own, hard won, alternative vision, just as A Fan's Notes itself subverts the vision of much recent fiction. If only in the negativity of its shining nightmare, then, A Fan's Notes inaugurates again the possibility of inserting oneself squarely amidst the reciprocating dependences of this difficult world. (pp. 98-9)

C. Barry Chabot, "The Alternative Vision of Frederick Exley's 'A Fan's Notes'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by James Dean Young 1977). Vol. XIX. No. 1, 1977, pp. 87-100.

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