Books: Rereading “A Fan’s Notes”

When I first read E. M. Forster’s “Where Angels Fear to Tread” I thought it a twisted comedy. (It is.) I read it again years later and found it sad — still a comedy, but threaded with tragedy. Loss, loss and more loss, complicated by squashed emotions and cultural misunderstanding.

Why do we reread? I get frustrated by the poverty of newer books. Character? Plot? Language? A book I’ve enjoyed in the past has hit all three.

I just reread Frederick Exley’s “A Fan’s Notes.” I’ve read it so many times its cover has come loose and its pages are divided into five uneven parts. Still, I worried: I hadn’t read “A Fan’s Notes” in 20 years. Would I like the character, again? He’s a drunk.

imagedb2“A Fan’s Notes” is an autobiographical novel. Frederick Exley is a likable, good looking, intelligent young man who refuses the American dream as he pursues it. When he beds the most American girl of all, a Midwest beauty named Bunny Sue, he can’t get it up. Enjoy “Mad Men”? He’s the shiny apple who gets canned for flipping off a client or starting a barroom brawl.

No friendship or relation is worth more than a drink.

It’s a train-wreck of a life. L.A., Miami, the West, New York in all its parts. Chicago is his Onhava: “In the summer we sat around gallon thermoses of vodka and tonic, as tribesmen around the beneficent fire, taking the sun on the most exhilarating city lake front in the world…behind us rose the dizzying turrets of Chicago’s skyline, pale and iridescent facades rising into the azure heavens, buildings all constructed, it seemed, for nothing save the pleasure of our eyes.”

He’s most often found on his mother’s davenport. More than once he’s institutionalized, electroshocked. He fails as a teacher, he flunks selling aluminum siding. The girl with roan hair takes him for drives; they marry. He fails her, too.

This read I was amazed by his junkie-like behavior in search of alcohol. But I never quit him; even at bottom, Exley finds a kind of wisdom, and humor.

It’s worth reading “A Fan’s Notes” again, and again. It’s dense, episodic, hilarious, horrifying. It’s also beautifully written, in loops: you could start at its end and find the same rich story.

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