Last Notes from Home by Frederick Exley

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Social Concerns / Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Last Notes from Home revisits themes Exley introduces in previous novels: the "myth" of the American Dream, the demise of heroes, personal failure, and our societal fascination with alcoholism and madness. Whether examining, through his characters, how our heroes have toppled or why so many in America seek solace in alcohol, Exley underscores the need he and his readers seem to share for an imagined, Utopian life beyond the drudgery of day-to-day existence. Last Notes from Home is, in part, a eulogy—to youthful ideals forgone, to brotherly love and, finally, to the inimitable, interminable bonds of home.

Set largely on the Hawaiian island of Lanai, the action of this novel is refracted always through the eyes of Ex, a narrator who spent his formative years in Watertown, New York, and who is never far, for long, in body or spirit from that place and its people. Like James Joyce, who Exley says also "never left home" and whose "lonely, impoverished exile on the Continent" was an academic ruse, Exley's attempts to deny his Irish Catholic heritage fail utterly. Imprisoned in "paradise" (Lanai) by James Searnus Finbarr O'Twoomey (another mad Irish nationalist exile), Exley, ironically, offers back-handed admiration to the pathological passion with which O'Twoomey embraces his homeland.

In this novel, the righteousness fueling O'Twoomey's guerilla war from afar counterpoints the "shame" which Ex says "killed" his brother, The Brigadier. The Brigadier's involvement in Vietnam, according to Ex, steals his spirit, his innermost sense of right and wrong. Throughout this narrative, Exley suggests that what began with the atom bomb and culminated...

(The entire section is 401 words.)