Are you just a fan? Frederick Exley of Watertown, New York not only saw himself as an eternal fan, but managed to turn this underling status into a fictional memoir that fills some 380 pages. Exley was a born escapist, amateur no-hoper and herculean drinker. He was also a heavy smoker, and this was back in the days before puffing away merrily equalled social leprosy. All this considered, it takes a serious set of balls to scratch an ill-conceived life onto over 300 plus pages. A life that was spent in and out of a State Hospital for the mentally insane, interspersed by periods of languid introspection on sofas (often referred to as a Davenport in this book).
I discovered this book at what appeared to be the right time in my life. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t smoking or drinking heavily, but I was undergoing a partly self-inflicted malaise. I was 12 months clear of a relationship I hadn’t had the stones to free myself from. I was still attached to the idea that hard-boiled love is better than a draining hunger for companionship. Plus I’d just made a narrow escape from a sales job I sucked at. Dreams of writing, and of watching those who did, sealed the failure of all attempts at selling.
So I was glad to discover this book. Frederick Exley called it a fictional memoir. The book begins with the narrator experiencing some kind of alcohol-induced bout of acute anxiety which Exley takes to be a heart attack. At the time of reading I felt I was there every step of the way, through the fear of certain death, to the elation when he realised he’d been spared. I also felt a blow when the nurse at the nearest hospital tells Exley he ought to quit drinking. Only for a few seconds did I believe he’d actually go sober for that period onwards. Drinking heavily was necessary if Fred Exley was to maintain even a basic show of normality.
“Unlike some men, I had never drunk for boldness or charm or wit; I had used alcohol for precisely what it was, a depressant to check the mental exhilaration produced by extended sobriety.”
I remember reading this line and thinking, you’ve nailed it perfectly. This is way too long to be used as a tagline for advertising alcohol, but it’s still golden prose.
To add to his appetite for escape, there’s also the narcissism he used to shield himself from the inevitable disappointments of life.
As yet another generation of modern readers lose the battle for their own attention spans, I would recommend getting hold of this book before the marbles dislodge entirely. It does the whole striving after failure thing incredibly well.