Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Reading Huddle: A Fan's Notes

Today I present another book selection in our “Reading Huddle” book club.  First, though, please direct your attention to the right sidebar, which will be the home of our new “Player of the Day” feature!

 OK, now back to today’s post…


Gostkowski (face down) after the miss
As we learned from the games this past weekend, nothing in the NFL is certain:  a dominant team (like the New England Patriots) can be manhandled by a weaker team in disarray (like the Arizona Cardinals) when it a predictably reliable player (kicker Stephen Gostkowski) makes a fatal and completely unforeseen error (missing a game-ending field goal). 


One thing in the NFL is certain, however.  If a player can set himself apart with exceptional talent or even one phenomenal highlight reel-worthy play, he can achieve immortality through that uniquely American currency, FAME. 


It was his dream—and expectation—of fame that sent Frederick Exley off into the world as a narcissistic misanthrope.  His account of how that worked for him is set out in his "fictional memoir," A Fan's Notes.  At times wickedly funny, and at other times heartbreaking in its honesty, Notes is a memorable story of a young man trying to thrive in a society he was not quite ready for, and that probably wasn't quite ready for him.

After graduating from the University of Southern California, Exley was certain of his status as a Poet (capitalization his), possessed with a unique genius that would lead him to produce a work that would perfectly reflect the essence of America and usher him into the upper echelons of the literary world.  So certain was he of his talent that he presented himself to possible employers and the rest of society (both of which he treated with extreme disdain), as someone whom they should want to know and employ, someone whom they should be entreating for attention and opportunity.


In today’s world, we too often come across people with this sense of entitlement and snicker at their cluelessness, only to find that they not only manage to hold down jobs but also to ascend through the ranks of whatever industry they have wormed their way into.  With the rise of social media, even Fame is no longer so elusive.  If Frederick Exley graduated from USC in the early 2000’s, he may have had a chance.  However, his early adulthood and A Fan’s Notes were set in the 1950’s—not a time when bravado and bluster got you very far. 
Unfortunately for Exley, his eccentricities also pushed him beyond society’s tolerance.  Instead of living (or living up to) the American Dream, he found himself in an endless spiral of depression, alcoholism and, not infrequently, stays at the neighborhood mental hospital. 


Whether or not it was his intention, Frederick Exley found one way to assimilate into American society, and, perhaps, to feel comfortable in his own skin:  through his genuine affection for the New York Giants and its star running back, Frank Gifford.  You may remember from our Football History 101 series that Frank Gifford (below) was a star running back at USC before he made a name for himself in the NFL.  In fact, he was a classmate of Frederick Exley’s. 


Frederick Exley grew up in rural New York and his father was a football legend in his hometown.  Though he never became a professional player, his father made his name in high school and playing for (and later coaching) the local semi-professional football club.  Knowing this, it’s easy to say that of course Exley would become a football fan, wanting to please and relate to his legendary father.  However, as you read Exley’s description and memories of his father, it is probably more accurate to say that he became a fan in spite of his father’s status.  


Years after leaving USC, where he never even saw Gifford play, Exley marveled at the more successful path Gifford took to find fame.  But as Exley started to project his fantasies onto Gifford’s reality, this casual observation became an obsession.  As you read A Fan’s Notes, though, ask yourself if (aside from Exley’s other mental health issues) his obsession may not seem all that different from the adoration of the most fervent fans of today.


Though he called it a “fictional memoir,” it was clear to his contemporaries, and critics then and now, that Notes is really autobiographical— Exley’s confession of a lifetime of sins.  This is why it is written with so much sincerity, self-deprecation, and humor.  Notes is also one of the few examples of football making an appearance in American literature.  The book, which was Exley’s debut novel (and also, it is widely agreed, his best), has been reprinted several times and is considered a modern classic, even prompting comparisons with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.  How Exley (above) would have felt about such accolades and his legacy we can only guess, as he died in 1992 after suffering a stroke, at the age of 63.


Frederick Exley is a fascinating and complicated character.  Note that I don’t say “loveable,” “sympathetic” or even “likeable.”  While reading Notes, you might at different times feel empathy, sadness and/or loathing for him.  However, no matter how feel about his as a person, his frankness and honesty will draw you in.  And inasmuch as this book is a confessional for Exley, it is an indictment of American culture and its rewards for those who fit its mold.  Therefore, though much has changed in the more than forty years since its publication, you may find yourself questioning your own motives and ideals as much as his.


As you might imagine, A Fan’s Notes is a book of depth--and length.  The Modern Library edition (which is smaller in surface area than the average hardback) is 425 pages.  With this in mind, look for discussion questions during the week of October 15th.  Look to the left sidebar for a link to purchase A Fan’s Notes for Kindle on Amazon. 




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