Frederick Exley Exley, Frederick (Vol. 6) - Essay

Exley, Frederick (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Exley, Frederick 1930–

Exley is an American novelist.

[It] is a characteristic irony that Mr. Exley's "fictional memoir" of a life-long failure to make it as a writer [A Fan's Notes] should be irrefutably successful….

[The] book is not a manic cry of anguish and self-pity; self examination is what Mr. Exley is about, and it is a task he undertakes with sedulity, insight and a determination to winnow the truth out of a life which, more than once, has become badly blurred round the edges.

Apart from anything else, Mr. Exley writes well—a faintly mocking (usually self-mocking) eloquent style provides the essential distance between Exley as author and Exley as star performer, a stratagem which has the paradoxical effect of assuring the truth while reminding us of the fictional part of "fictional memoir". The ability of Exley the writer to distance himself in this way proves invaluable: the wry, sometimes painfully funny events are kept from becoming maudlin, but retain the poignancy of a confession which, told solely to amuse, gains sympathy for that very reason.

"Fact Made Fiction," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1970; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), January 29, 1970, p. 101.

Frederick Exley wrote a good, amazingly personal book in "A Fan's Notes." He is a talented writer who would like to understand why he drinks so much, gave up on this long ago, in fact gave up on everything except writing his "autobiography." This sequel to "A Fan's Notes" ["Pages From a Cold Island"] will have a sequel. Although he tries to be the last word in total horrendous honesty and is so total in recalling every shake in his innards that reading him is like being married to him, Exley cares for nothing but storytelling, has evidently read nothing but novels, and wouldn't recognize the unfabled, unvarnished, non-smart truth if it hit him. Like so many new American writers, he grew up on 20th-century novels, he would rather be Nick Carraway than anyone else, he often confuses himself with Herzog. Through such a film of famous characters, scenes, narrative techniques, he no longer knows his life from the book he has made of it.

But if the book is presented as "autobiography"? Then the final trick is to present oneself not as hero or anti-hero but as what Camus called the "special case" we present to ourselves. In this artfully tough, cleverly staged, but all too itemized account of his sad frolics in Florida, upstate New York, Iowa City, Exley's trick is to show that he is a case beyond questioning and beyond solution, a case so bravely hopeless that you must find him charming. He presents himself as a parody of negative capability—unable or unwilling to do a thing about himself, he is deep in misadventures, misadventures. (p. 4)

It is all a riot, of sorts, full of the special bravado—I am not afraid to say anything about anybody: that is Exley's flourish. No one will get mad. Much as I enjoy reading Exley, I am depressed by how instantly perishable it all seems. It's too much of an act—the act it had to be in order to get itself written. So it's not a novel either, but a magazine-smart piece of writing by a very good writer who is afraid of letting us see the dilemma that made this book necessary. (p. 5)

Alfred Kazin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 20, 1975.

In 1969 [Exley] published a remarkable, scary autobiographical narrative, "A Fan's Notes." ["Pages from a Cold Island"] is the sequel—the middle book of what will be a trilogy.

The Exley of Exley's books is the ultimate loser, the ultimate slob. (p. 94)

Exley evokes the world as a pop shambles, a mad morass of media monsters with no moral center. His symbol for this is the death of Edmund Wilson in 1972, which sends him off on a year of spasmodic encounters and confrontations…. He interviews Gloria Steinem, trying unsuccessfully to divine how she had "come out of the putrid years so splendidly."

Exley himself came out of those years "a simpering, stuttering, drunken and mute mess." His refusal to analyze why and how this happened is one of those strategies that seem to be at the center of much of today's art. Exley wants us—and possibly himself—to feel, see and hear rather than to "understand." His mind—full of jabber about Walter Cronkite, Barbara Walters, the Kennedys, Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn Monroe—is the mind of that stupefied cyborg who is our fellow citizen and the man in the mirror. By evoking himself as the raunchy, twitchy, paranoid lumpen-creature that he—perhaps—is, he evokes a lumpen-humanity toward which—perhaps—we are all drifting. (p. 97)

Jack Kroll, "Man in the Mirror," in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), May 12, 1975, pp. 94, 97.

Frederick Exley is beyond a doubt and self-confessedly the most totally odious, screwed up, self-pitying, gluttonous, licentious, unregenerate deadbeat and irremediably alcoholic wretch who ever set word to paper.

Essentially he has all the hallmarks of modern literary depravity but is, in fact, a writer of incomparable skill and scintillating genius. Exley's A Fan's Notes, sent reviewers on a panegyrical pilgrimage to Roget's Thesaurus in search of the multitude of glowing adjectives with which they showered his book to an extent almost unheralded in the history of modern literary criticism.

Fortunately for Exley's perpetual masochism, the book's financial success was not commensurate with its critical acclaim. Instead of receiving a two hundred thousand dollar advance from a book club, a cascade of shimmering offers, or even a scrivener's post in Hollywood, Exley, after a traumatic and dissipatory fling, was shunted back to his pitiful and frenzied struggle to survive, in spite of himself—buoyed only by a phenomenal capacity to absorb self-destructive folly and the carefully nurtured ability to get smashed twice a day, every day.

Out of this personal cauldron of obloquy, he has now crafted a second book of stunning brilliance. In fact, Pages from a Cold Island is so good that his present publishers have reissued A Fan's Notes under their imprint. Together they document what Exley trenchantly characterizes as "that long malaise, my life."…

Throughout both books he maintains an infectious Rabelaisian humor, skillfully averting the confessional sump which has pervaded recent literature. Most importantly, his writing is so beautifully structured that its effect is almost hypnotic. It has a rhythmic cadence which beggars description—almost a feeling of sensuousness—despite the usually raunchy import of the test. Perhaps he is an intuitive genius who can blithely fire these superbly formulated little gems out at typing speed.

But I rather suspect that much of the torment he encounters in writing derives from a compulsion to cut and chisel each phrase until it achieves the kind of luminescent perfection which Edmund Wilson would approve. [Pages from a Cold Island chronicles Wilson's last days and Exley's profound grief.]

I certainly wouldn't presume to second-guess Wilson, who is undoubtedly now straightening up whatever sector of the hereafter to which he was consigned. But in my painfully less cultivated opinion, A Fan's Notes and Pages from a Cold Island may well be the best books you'll read until Exley's promised third volume, which he is now enthusiastically living in the bars of America.

Douglas J. Maloney, "The Return of Exley," in Literary Quarterly, May 15, 1975, p. 7.

[Members] of the small but ardent Fan's Notes cult may be disappointed that he has not simply rewritten his first book, but that is their problem. Pages from a Cold Island stands quite confidently on its own, similar to its predecessor in some important and gratifying respects (the rich, raunchy sex; the merciless self-scrutiny; the wild humor and extravagant invention) but in other respects, equally important and gratifying, it is very much its own book….

The subject of A Fan's Notes was, in large measure, the kinds and varieties of American success and failure. The subject of Pages from a Cold Island is the "literary life," as exemplified by Wilson, as occasionally practiced by Exley himself, and as mocked by the literary personalities of the media fame. Toward the end of the book, talking with a student at the Iowa Writers Workshop, Exley brings it all into focus: "'Your real literary life,' I offered as my one piece of tendentiousness, 'will begin the day you accept the conditions, apartness, confusion, loneliness, work, and work, and work—the conditions so many of your peers have already accepted and that Edmund Wilson and his stone house so vividly and hauntingly evoke.'"

It may be true, as Alfred Kazin says in an otherwise monumentally wrong-headed review of Pages from a Cold Island for The New York Times Book Review [above], that Exley's appreciation of Wilson's actual writing seems limited to Memoirs of Hecate County, but that is scarcely the point. Exley's standing as a critic of Wilson's work is vastly less important than his understanding of the meaning of Wilson's career…. (p. 24)

To say that Pages from a Cold Island is about the writing life is not to slight the other themes that move through it. It is also concerned with the sense of place in a rootless nation—with Exley's fierce love for and identification with the cold north country to which he is repeatedly drawn. Underneath all the seemingly aimless and self-gratifying sex in which Exley indulges (and clinically describes) there is a gradual awareness of the bonds of love, a rejection of "our desperate sexual musical-chairs society." There is some superb journalism, notably a confrontation between Exley and [Gloria] Steinem that is marvelously funny and oddly, surprisingly touching. And always there is the Exley imagination….

Readers who aren't interested in the workings of his mind probably won't be interested in his books, but what strikes me as singularly impressive in both of them is that he makes the reader interested. The true subject of Pages from a Cold Island is not Edmund Wilson or Gloria Steinem or Norman Mailer, but Frederick Exley, and he makes Exley matter. He matters, I think, because beneath the sad surface of a life seemingly given over to too much booze and too much random sex and too much aimlessness, there is a true writer, an artist unseduced by fad and fashion, pressing on to the fulfillment of his vision. Pages from a Cold Island is real progress toward that goal, the work of a writer we will no longer have to "rediscover." (p. 25)

Jonathan Yardley, "Sense of Place," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), May 31, 1975, pp. 24-5.

My objections [to A Fan's Notes and Pages from a Cold Island] are primarily to Exley "himself," because in his case more than almost any other the self creates the writer. In Pages from a Cold Island he is a desperately sick person and the sickness oozes out, all over sentences and paragraphs. So there is no semblance of a whole here because the life being lived cannot face itself. The problems are fewer in A Fan's Notes precisely because there Exley is more willing to tell the stories of how his impulse to dominate and conquer led to booze and madness even if he never makes the connections himself, or understands their cause. He did not end as a fan but as the author of A Fan's Notes, trapped between his lusts and his rejection of them, between the urge to dramatize his plight and his refusal to alter it, between his strong feelings of sympathy for others who suffer and his inability to imagine another human being. There was, therefore, a book called Pages from a Cold Island before there was a book to fill those pages, and the result is mostly an anguished mess born of a terrible need to write some book, any book. So he must now cast out another lifeline and announce there will be yet another, Last Notes from Home. But only if he finds out what book it should be will he be able to justify what he once called "that long malaise, my life."…

Exley is very much in need of a subject that is not himself, or, failing that, a way of writing about himself that won't equate self-regard and self-pity and will keep both off the page. On the evidence, there's no reason to believe he can do this, but Exley can be good enough, and fun enough to read even when he's awful, to make one want to hope. (p. 38)

Roger Sale, "Typing It Up," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 NYREV, Inc.), June 26, 1975, pp. 37-8.