The protagonist of A Fan’s Notes is quite an interesting character. As I read, I found myself thinking a lot about him—how he is like me and unlike me, what I liked about him and disliked about him, etc.
The book is presented as fiction, but is told in the style of an autobiography. From what the author says and what I read about the book online, my impression is that the book is pretty darn close to Frederick Exley’s real life, but that he wanted to retain the right to alter details here and there without being a liar, and to avoid people depicted negatively in the book getting mad and suing him for inaccuracy, so he calls it a work of fiction.
If it’s about the real Exley, he certainly doesn’t bend the truth to make himself look good. From what I saw online, I gather that readers find the protagonist fascinating, repugnant, or often both. It’s something of a confessional book—a man coming to grips with what an asshole he is, and wanting to understand why.
Then again there is at times a kind of boasting to his storytelling. He sometimes comes across as one of those people who has crossed the line to where instead of any longer trying to hide what a loser he is, he wants to revel in it and make himself out to be the biggest, most pitiful of losers.
There are flashbacks to the protagonist’s childhood, but most of the book takes place in the 1950s and 1960s when he is a young adult. The narrative is not presented in chronological order, and since he often doesn’t give dates or other specifics to make it easy to locate something in time, it can be confusing trying to keep up with just when exactly the section one is currently reading takes place. I suspect enough in fact is said to identify each section’s place in time; it’s just a matter of my needing to read more closely or better yet take notes. But at least as I experienced it, the book had a jumpy, impressionistic feel to it.
Exley, at least the book’s Exley, is a major alcoholic. Were he to take one of those “Are You an Alcoholic?” quizzes (“Have you ever had a relationship break up over your drinking?,” “Have you ever lost a job because of your drinking?,” “Do you drink at such-and-such time of day?,” “Do you ever drink in order to feel such-and-such?,” etc.), he’d likely get a perfect score. Almost everything in his life seems to involve his drinking, to excess, in one way or another. It’s seemingly both a cause and an effect of his screwed-up life.
Now on the one hand, I typically don’t feel much connection with someone like that, because I don’t drink and I tend to have a viscerally negative reaction to alcohol’s being a major part of someone’s lifestyle. So in that sense it’s hard for me to see myself in him, and maybe hard to feel as much empathy for his plight as I otherwise might.
On the other hand, at a deeper level I do see certain aspects of myself in him. He has some values, traits, bad luck, what have you, that lead to him feeling like a real misfit in the world and to failing at the things he develops a passion for. So do I. He’s depressed a lot of the time, not at all happy with where he is in life. So am I. He has a conviction that there’s something special about him, that he’s made for bigger and better things (mainly being a big time writer, though he briefly toys with other possibilities like being a great teacher) than the mediocrities he sees around him, and he’s repulsed by the notion of settling into a life like theirs. You can say something sort of like that about me, though hopefully I’m a lot less obnoxious and arrogant about it than him.
It’s just that he deals with his failures and his not fitting in and all that by getting drunk at every opportunity. I don’t. That’s a major difference.
He recounts in detail some of his experiences in an asylum in which he stayed on four different occasions during these years. I would say, though, that aside from his stupid and self-destructive decisions about alcohol, he mostly doesn’t come across as what I would think of as mentally ill, at least not so mentally ill as to need institutionalization.
Here again I see some parallels with me. It’s not so much that he’s unable to function as a “normal” person due to being crazy, but more that so much of conventional life goes against his nature and his values that periodically he just can’t bring himself to do it any longer. I feel like I’ve spent much of my life on the edge of that. I’ve never felt like I’m mentally ill in the sense that my beliefs wildly differ from reality, or I hear strange voices, or anything like that, but I’m certainly a lot less functional in certain conventional ways than the typical sane person, especially a sane person with my intellect and such.
I feel like both he and I have serious doubts about whether it’s worth playing all the games, even if in principle we’re capable of doing so well enough to have pretty comfortable, successful lives by mainstream standards. I think in my case I’ve muddled through due to a number of factors—sheer luck to a large extent, a certain amount of resourcefulness, the assistance of people who care about me, at least a slight willingness to grudgingly make some compromises when I have to—so I’ve never gone over that edge. When I do get to where I just can’t be bothered to sustain myself any more, I suspect what’s on the other side when I go over that edge is suicide. Exley did go over that edge, repeatedly, and what he found on the other side wasn’t suicide, but binge drinking and an asylum where he doesn’t have to take care of himself.
I was tickled by Exley’s descriptions of his attitude toward and interactions with the women that attract him. Tickled, but cringing at the same time. What I like about it is the frankness, the honesty. Like so many of us males, especially when we’re young, he thinks with his dick. The difference is that he’s willing to say so, with no sugarcoating.
One of his greatest obsessions, up there with imagining future glory and riches as a famous writer, and consuming as much alcohol as his system will hold, is beautiful women. Always they’re judged primarily on their looks, and those looks are idealized as so compelling as to render anything one does in reaction to them understandable and excusable. Whether they’re hypothetical women he dreams about ending up with, women he admires from afar, women he’s rejected by, women he has one night stands with, or women he has relationships with, they’re stunningly sexy—generally blonde nubile young coeds—more goddess than human.
Men learn that, in most circles at least, you’re not supposed to be so blatant about what an extraordinarily powerful and consciousness-dominating effect a beautiful woman can have on you, as that’s sexist and objectifies women and all that, but it’s a very, very common male attitude. I definitely have some of that in how I respond to women. As I’ve gotten older and hopefully matured, what I’ve tried to do is not so much suppress that, as make sure that my appreciation for the externals of certain women doesn’t blind me to their other good and bad qualities, or blind me to the good and bad qualities of other people who don’t attract me in that way.
So I’m sure I still at some level react with the same awe and lust when I see the kind of incredibly hot young women that blew me away when I was a horny teenager, but I try not to make that the only thing I notice or appreciate about people.
With Exley, his positive reactions to people—which are rare—move along separate tracks. The people he feels a kinship with, the people he is fascinated by and develops a fondness for, the people he craves to describe in writing in all their delightful complexity and detail, are his fellow oddballs and misfits, the kind of folks others might not bother to take a close look at. Some are losers like him, some have found a way to achieve some degree of conventional success despite their kookiness or nonconformity, but all are “characters” that enrich his life and that he wants the world to know about.
On the other track are the extraordinarily sexy women he can’t resist. They seem to have far less inner life in his writing. They are there to look at and to fantasize about, but even when he’s lucky enough to be with one, he typically mistreats her, neglects her, sponges off her, or finds some obscure, symbolic, literary reason that she’s not the one suitable to be his mate in his idealized future life. They serve their purpose, but they don’t fascinate him in the same way that the entertainingly bizarre Mr. Blue and his ilk do.
Speaking of obsessions, another great obsession of Exley’s life is the source of the book’s title. He is a sports fan, to the point that spelling out “fan” as its original “fanatic” fits.
He is especially fanatic about his beloved New York (football) Giants. There are times in his life when watching the Giants on TV at the local bar and rooting them on fervently is almost his only connection with reality, his one escape from his troubled mind dwelling on himself and his failures.
His favorite of the Giants is running back/wide receiver Frank Gifford, with whom he had some very minimal personal contact when they went to the same university. He sees himself, or tries to anyway, as living a parallel life to Gifford’s. Gifford has achieved glory, riches, and all the women he wants as a result of his athletic exploits; Exley is destined to do the same, he hopes, through his writing.
He rises and falls with Gifford’s successes and failures. No matter how much of a loser he sees himself as, somehow he feels he’ll do as well in the end as his doppelganger Gifford. He’s asked at one point if he doesn’t hate Gifford for pulling away from him so dramatically in the quest for glory, and the question puzzles him. He doesn’t compete with Gifford or envy Gifford; he emulates Gifford and sees him as an indicator of his own fate.
At times, though, this conviction that he’s destined to be the Frank Gifford of writers weakens. In a passage that’s among the most powerful in the book, he contemplates the very real possibility that he’s not in fact destined to be another Gifford, but instead will never rise above the world’s innumerable mediocrities who can get no closer to greatness than to live vicariously through their heroes. He’s horrified by the thought that he may never be more than a spectator.
One of the main themes of the book is the influence Exley’s father had on him. Exley’s father was a star high school athlete, and a revered figure in their small town until his death from cancer at age 40. His “big fish in a small pond” persona shaped, damaged, fascinated, and intimidated Exley.
I’ll admit I found the Exley character more likable than not, though I understand why many readers will be repulsed by him. I think that’s just my usual bias that the deeper I’m brought inside a protagonist, the more he opens himself up—or is opened up by the author—the harder it is for me to hate him. I almost always find myself siding with, or at least having empathy for, the person from whose perspective a story is told.
A Fan’s Notes is a solid, interesting book. I especially appreciate Exley’s novelist’s eye for weird characters. I suspect how a reader responds to this book will depend in part on whether they are drawn to confessional characters willing to admit their flaws, or find it to be unappealing grandstanding, a kind of reverse bravado.