When I was an undergraduate and getting started in the world of proper literary study and scholarship, I was pretty insufferable with my love and appreciation for Jack Kerouac and his novel On The Road. It was something akin to one’s first love. Well that’s not entirely true, because there were many, many books that I loved that I’d read before reading On The Road. But its effect upon me was great and it lead me down this path (writing, literary study, seeing the study at literature as something like a vocation, etc etc). And throughout college, my friends and professors would, with the best of intentions (at least some of the time, the actions of some people I knew did feel a bit disingenuous) suggest books I should look into given my feelings about Kerouac’s novel. One of those books, suggested by one of my favorite English professors, was Frederick Exley’s 1968 novel A Fan’s Notes. I picked up a copy from Bookpeople, the best bookstore in Austin, perhaps the best bookstore anywhere. And, in a sad admission of reality, it sat on my bookshelf. It sat in Austin. It sat in two apartments in Winston-Salem. It sat in Tallahassee. But after all those years of having it recommended to me, I finally decided it was time I read this book that I felt like I should.
It was a bit surprising that I hadn’t read this book as, for many reasons, it is one that I was perhaps destined to enjoy. It is a novel (or perhaps we should say memoir, as the main character is named Exley and the subtitle to the novel is “A Fictional Memoir,” but I’ll talk more about that later) that is in part about the narrator’s interest in, obsession with, the NFL’s New York Giants of the 1950s and specifically their star running back Frank Gifford. As one who is obsessed with football, and sports in general, it was certainly something that resonated with me and to which I could relate in much the same way as I did to Nick Hornby’s memoir Fever Pitch documenting his life as an Arsenal fan.
But if Exley’s book were just a documentation of what it meant to be a fan of sports, to worship an athlete, to find something in fandom, it would be something that was nice and fun to read but that would be it. It is the ways in which the novel goes beyond that makes A Fan’s Notes much more interesting and why those comparisons to Kerouac are a bit apropos. Quoting from the New York Times‘ review of the novel in 1968, John Sisk writes “the book deserves comparison with the baseball novels of Bernard Malamud and Mark Harris. It is not about pro football in the sense that George Plimpton’s ‘Paper Lion’ is, yet it is inconceivable without the passionate experience of that sport–that ‘island of directness in a world of circumspection.'” Football and its attendant fandom plays a large and central role in the novel, and yet it is not just about that. As a depiction of depression and mental illness, I found it to be profoundly affecting. Spending time in and out of psychiatric institutions, being subjected to electroshock therapy, Exley depicts both the experience of being in those institutions along with the feeling and experience of depression, making me think of Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar.
But what lies at the heart of this novel are two issues that have often been the central subject of great literature and art– the American Dream and its viability as well as questions of masculinity and what it means to be a man. Exley questions the possibility of realizing the American Dream that we are presented from all sides in our modern American culture as well as wondering whether one can find some kind of satisfaction in those things that make it up. In his search for a career and employment, Exley questions whether or not this is worth it and whether achieving that “dream” will bring any kind of happiness and fulfillment. In that regard, the comparison to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby seen in the blurb on the back cover from Newsday is profoundly apropos. Exley is shining a light upon the things that we have been presented, as a society, that will make men feel fulfilled and happy and the hollowness at the heart of those things. Exley also investigates masculinity and what exactly that entails, particularly in his depictions of relationships and commentary regarding sex, though much like how Gatsby links romance with questions of the American Dream so too does A Fan’s Notes though in a much more realistic way. Thinking about other books of that time that addressed these issues such as Percy’s The Moviegoer and Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road amongst others, A Fan’s Notes stands among those as a strong diagnosis of this malaise that affected those living at that time.
What separates or distinguishes A Fan’s Notes from those aforementioned novels is its claim to “real life,” its status as a “fictional memoir” with the memoir part being very foregrounded. Exley is a character in his own novel and it is a book that, whether he intended or not, makes some kind of claim to being a depiction of something that “actually happened.” I enjoyed this quality and, as one who is interested in memoir and creative nonfiction, found it to give the novel a deeper and richer character. It doesn’t matter to me whether or not the story is true, it doesn’t mean that the claims it makes are somehow invalid, but as a work that is or presents itself as memoir-ish, it provides and interesting model for what one can attempt to do with the memoir/creative nonfiction genre.
Based on what I’ve written, you can tell I did rather like A Fan’s Notes. I felt it to be akin to many of the novels that I love, many of them mentioned in this post. But what Exley does and how he engages with this big ideas that so much American fiction ends up grappling with is what sets it apart and makes it unique, both in terms of its status as a “fictional memoir” as well as in the more “down to earth” or “gritty” way these ideas are explored. It’s even interesting to think about this novel and the way in which it uses and depicts fandom in the context of our own time, where being a fan has become an even greater and more elaborate thing and when we’ve become much more removed and disengaged like Exley throughout the novel. This gives the novel a greater resonance and defines it as something that should be read by today’s audiences.