Christopher Lehman-Haupt suggests that Exley's prose reaches readers by way of the Aristotelian act of katharsis. He says: "Exley's character and experience are familiar enough to identify with (and therefore to fear) and at the same mad and extreme and bizarre enough to separate him from us (and therefore to pity). One gets involved without getting hurt."
Many reviewers have praised Exley's "fierce honesty," even within an admittedly fictionalized historical record. Jack Kroll adds: "Exley knows that truth is in good part a function of the imagination. What counts, and where difficulty lies, is with the psychic, the emotional, the spiritual truth." In Pages front a Cold Island, Exley's "itemized account of his sad frolics in Florida, upstate New York and Iowa City," the author presents himself not as a hero or anti-hero, but as what Camus called the "special case." "His is a case beyond solution, a case so bravely hopeless that you must find him charming. Be presents himself as a parody of negative capability — unable or unwilling to do a thing about himself, he is deep in misadventures, misadventures". Despite the feckless disposition of this "special case," Exley's writing evinces beautiful structure, hypnotic cadence, and a philologist's love of language.
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