That Ambrosial Stink
An interview with Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley
By Bobby Maddex

From Gadfly May 1998

If you have yet to encounter Frederick Exley's classic novel A Fan's Notes, go now—today—buy it, breathe it. For as those of you who've already read it know, it's one of those rare books that takes life by its ears, looks it in the eye and, without being sentimental or self‑aggrandizing, lets loose a wonderfully foul belch. Writers from time immemorial have claimed that the key to good literature is "truth." Well, what could be more truthful than that work which, with a single, prolonged exhalation—with an ambrosial stink—summarizes not only the incredible tragedy of a life lived in opposition to these redundant days of the twentieth century, but is keen enough to represent the art of summarization itself? Here is just such a breath, a novel by one of the few and last authors to have been a true participant in the life about which he was writing.

Fred Exley was born on March 28, 1929 into the small community of Watertown, New York, where his father Earl was the local football hero. And on its most superficial level, Exley's thinly disguised autobiography is the record of one who could do nothing to slip from behind his father's shadow. But this is a special book. It's more than its story, so much more than its expressive and accurate prose, and perhaps a million times more than its alcoholic author. For A Fan's Notes is that scarcest of all literary objects: it's a product of love and self‑inquiry, a life splayed painfully and generously for our perusal, the fortuitous child of properly aligned stars and planets, a one‑time event, the book that had to be written.

Jonathan Yardley, the Pulitzer Prize‑winning book critic for The Washington Post, draws our attention to these facts and more in the recent Misfit, his "impressionistic" account of the man behind the miracle. As the following interview will attest, his biography does much to uncover the events and circumstances which made Exley the destructive individual that he was. But it does so without the futile speculation so many literary biographies employ to help explain the creative process. Instead, Misfit uses Exley and his masterpiece as an opportunity to explore the American literary themes which they raise: the one‑book syndrome, our fame‑obsessed society and the culture of autobiography.

Could you explain your relation to A Fan's Notes and what about it allured you?

JY: I was headed off in the fall of 1968 to Harvard University for a Nieman Fellowship given annually to a dozen American journalists. In anticipation of some pleasant reading—I was an editorial writer at the time and the book editor with the Greensboro, North Carolina Daily News—I went through my stack of review copies and tossed a few new books into a box to take with me, including A Fan's Notes which was a memoir and seemed to be about professional football of which I was a big fan. I read it in the spring of 1969 and, by that point, everybody had been telling me how wonderful it was. A year later, Ballantine Books brought out a paperback edition of the book and I used that as an excuse to write a column about it. By the early winter of 1974, I was reviewing for The New Republic and I proposed A Fan's Notes to its literary editor who was running an irregular series called "Reconsiderations." That's when Fred Exley entered my life directly. One night, my new wife was awakened by the phone at 2:00 in the morning. It was Exley in the first of his innumerable and expensive late‑night drunken phone calls. He had heard that I was working on this piece and wanted to make sure that I was going to say what he wanted me to say. I was still young and impressionable at that time, thought very highly of A Fan's Notes and was honored that Fred had called me. I didn't mind that he was drunk. From then until his death in 1992, we had irregular contact by telephone and letter. We never actually met. When his second book Pages From a Cold Island came out, he was spending much of his time in Singer Island, Florida, which wasn't that far from Miami. He wanted me to come up, but those were the days when I was still an enthusiastic consumer of hard alcohol and I knew such a meeting would be bad medicine. Something I said in Misfit and do feel very strongly about is that people who loved A Fan's Notes wanted nothing more than for Exley to produce another masterpiece like it. We believed so deeply in Fred's gifts and the extraordinary qualities of his first book that we would have fallen over backwards to encourage Fred and let him know that there were people who supported him and wanted to see him live up to his full potential once again.

I did notice in Misfit that your reviews of Exley's later books were more positive than your actual opinion of them. And other people intimately associated with Exley fudged in similar ways to encourage his potential. I have to admit that this disturbed me because it isn't one of the roles I associate with literary criticism.

There was something about Fred. I write about the way his mother and sister over‑protected him and how people were always ready to take him in. He brought out this nurturing quality in people. Why it was that all of us put him on such a long leash, went the extra mile, all the imaginable clichés, can't be explained. You won't find the answer in Misfit because it's an absolute mystery to me. I do mention that immediately after he was born, he wasn't breathing. This obviously distressed his mother. He learned as a very small boy that if he held his breath he could get anything he wanted. She was afraid. He was precious to her and she didn't want to lose him. Very early on, this established a habit of dependency on his part, a habit of servitude on the part of his mother, and somehow he managed to establish the same relationship with everybody else. It's a total mystery.

You chalk a lot up to mystery.

In many ways, I think the central lesson to be taken from Misfit is that Exley was a mystery. And like any mystery, he can't be solved. I made some decisions about what I was going to do with that book—mainly keeping it short and almost impressionistic—which some people just didn't like. They wanted a laundry list and I wasn't going to give them that. I think the problem that Misfit raises in the minds of some of the people who've reviewed it is that it doesn't provide the answers they want and expect to the questions that Fred's life raised. But I thought the only way to handle it was to delineate the questions and offer some possible answers. We can't know, however, what the answers really are. All of us are mysterious but Freddy was mysterious to the Nth degree.

The way you wrote it seems to fly in the face of any number of theories which see an understanding of an individual behind the work as crucial to an understanding of the work itself.

I disagree so strongly with those theories. I think literary biography is just a form of higher gossip. We read books and are curious about their authors. What kind of guy was he? That's the basic question that we're all asking. That's why we read biographies of William Faulkner. And we all know that Faulkner, too, was a drunk, that his personal relationships were hectic. He had feelings for people that Freddy didn't have but was caught up in the same internal world of imagination, memory, regret, loss, insecurity and all the other things that combine to produce creativity. These go on in an area that the biographer simply can't reach. I say in the first paragraph of Misfit that it's beyond the human capacity to have full and intimate knowledge of another person. There are parts of another person's mind and consciousness that can't be accessed by anyone else.

I thought that you made it very clear in your book that Exley embodied all that's best and worst in American authors—their collective personality, their struggles with productivity and fame. I saw the book as more of a commentary on writing in the twentieth century than a biography of Exley. Is that what you were trying to convey?

Yes. There are basically two reasons to write a biography of Fred Exley. One is that A Fan's Notes aroused intense reactions on the part of many, if not most, of the people who read it. And a lot of them wondered how the reality of the book coincided and diverged from Exley's actual life. That's one reason to write it which, again, is a sort of higher gossip.

The only other reason to do it, it seemed to me, was to draw some larger points from Fred Exley's life as a writer. He sheds light on self‑preoccupation—autobiography as a theme in twentieth century American letters—and the other central fact of American art which is that so many people really do only produce one work of lasting significance. I think fame, even if it comes in very small doses like it was administered to Exley, is a deterrent to further artistic production. It becomes a very serious distraction. After the publication of A Fan's Notes, Fred Exley became FREDERICK EXLEY, the author, literary persona, someone journalists from sports columns would call to ask for comments on the Superbowl. You can spend the rest of your life doing that. Ernest Hemingway spent an awful lot of his time doing stuff like that. Even Faulkner, who was probably more faithful to his art than any other important American writer of his day, wandered off to the University of Virginia and allowed himself to become a literary lion. By then, he was in his late fifties and his productivity was probably fading anyway, but it was still a distraction. I think the two reasons that Fred never wrote anything that could stand alongside A Fan's Notes were, one, that he was literally a one-book author and, two, his standing as a second‑echelon literary lion gave him other things to do than work.

As new generations push forth their own writers, can we expect fewer and fewer good books to arise out of our fame‑obsessed culture?

We can expect this, but not for the reason you're proffering. I think that the most damaging influence on American literary fiction is that it's now situated inside the academy. I love universities. I love almost everything about them. But they're very narrow, small, self‑contained, hermetic places. When people who write literary fiction spend their lives preoccupied with the concerns of the academy, rather than the concerns of American life, I think it's inevitable—we can see it in what's being written—that American literary fiction is going to become constipated and self‑regarding. That to me is the greatest problem. Another one is that many of the people who might have been drawn into literary work a generation ago are now being drawn into other kinds of creative expression. Various technologies have opened up—television, movies, all that stuff. The rewards here are spectacularly high for the people who succeed and so this is where a lot of gifted and talented people are directing themselves.

In Exley's case, a single masterpiece emerged from a tormented life. We, as readers, are blessed, but wouldn't it have been better had we been denied the novel and Exley granted a happy life? What's the proper attitude toward such a phenomenon?

I think that Fred Exley would have answered your question by saying that his life couldn't have been happy had he not written A Fan's Notes. Modern Library brought out a new edition of the book to coincide with my biography. I wrote a very brief introduction to it and I did say there what I should have said in Misfit which is that Fred Exley was put on earth to write A Fan's Notes. It was the reason for his existence. It grants him a kind of immortality that an ordinary person in a white picket‑fence life can't have. A Fan's Notes is how Fred Exley tried to heal his wounds, give them expression and understand them.

Last summer with Misfit in print and soon to be released, I found myself with the new Modern Library edition of the book on the table sitting next to me. I had been reading this book almost constantly for two years but as Fred's biographer. I had been looking for evidence. When I picked it up and just started to read it—just to read the prose—I was absolutely knocked flat on my ass. It's so powerful, so courageous. He reaches down inside himself in ways that all of today's memoirs wouldn't begin to understand how to do. They're exploiting themselves with their "victimization" and all the other things about which they whine. Freddy was trying to understand himself, was trying to exorcise those demons. It's an amazing performance. This is a rather aggressive response to your question but I think that people are what they are. And we have to hope that within the limits of happiness and sanity and everything else that is granted to them, they can have lives as productive as possible. I think a life that produces A Fan's Notes is a really productive life.

Exley was an alcoholic but he never really used drink to spark creativity. Does this mean that he was more of a natural writer than the Beats or someone like Faulkner?

That's a good question. I wish that I had faced that more directly in the book. In a very odd way, Fred was a disciplined man. And it shows not just in his ability to stop drinking in order to write, but also in little oddities like him keeping neat apartments. Every place he lived was always neat. In nearly every way, he was a slob and yet there was a kind of orderliness that belied the unconventionality that he sought so hard to project. When push came to shove, Fred turned to his desk and started to write. Now I do believe that the mystery of A Fan's Notes had to do with the enforced sobriety and discipline of the mental institution in which it was written. Fred was a terrible, terrible, terrible drunk. He was world‑class. I think if he hadn't gotten lucky as a young and relatively sober man, and had he not discovered literature as a way to express painful things, he just would have been a drunk and nothing else. He would have been dead a lot earlier than he was. He had inside him somewhere—it was obviously at his core—the desire to tell his story and he somehow found the discipline to do it. The last two books and the odds and ends that were his magazine articles were written at a period when he had no external disciplinary force. He was never again institutionalized for anything more than hospital treatment. And so the discipline to produce these works had to come from inside himself.

You talk several times in your book about the "literary self‑image" and how Exley was of the generation that looked to men like Hemingway for an example of the writing life.

I think his generation was the last of male American writers to whom the Hemingway image was a central, shaping influence.

Do writers today have the same sort of figures upon which to model their lives?

That's an interesting question, too. We've had some very important and accomplished writers since the Hemingway/Faulkner/Fitzgerald/Wolfe generation, but we haven't had the larger‑than‑life figures that those four men were. I have enormous respect for, say, Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow and William Styron. But these are people who've spent their lives writing. They haven't been jumping in fountains like Fitzgerald or going to bull‑fights like Hemingway or being a larger‑than‑life drunk like Wolfe or the squire of Oxford like Faulkner. They're not public personalities. Even the reluctant Faulkner became a public personality. We no longer have such dynamic individuals to emulate—unless you count Norman Mailer. And this is purely a matter of personal taste, but I think any writer who would use Mailer as a literary exemplum would be out of his mind. I can't remember whether it was in Misfit or somewhere else, but I do argue that the Hemingway generation was the great romantic era of American letters. These were romantic figures and, in many ways, they were all romantics, too. And that's gone. A lot of history has happened since then and none of it's likely to trigger the romantic impulse.

There's a lot of talk in the film realm about how films are no longer influenced by real life but by past films. Can the same be said of writers? Are they drawing their material not from outside life anymore, but from their own internal lives?

I think that most so‑called literary fiction unabashedly draws as its central resource the inner life of the writer. American writers, with only the rarest of exceptions, make no effort at all to discover what's going on in the larger society, unless they take a sort of contemptuous, superannuated, 1960s view of it—as in, say, the fiction of Robert Stone, Don DeLillo or Russell Banks. I can't remember where I read about it—it's been several years ago—but there's a guy who makes a modestly remunerative career by doing research for writers. So that when John Updike decides he's going to make Rabbit Angstrom a Toyota dealer in one of the later Rabbit books, he hires this guy to find out what it's like to be a Toyota dealer. It doesn't seem to have crossed his mind that he should do this himself. Apparently, this guy has a lot of clients, some of them relatively well‑known. He's a leg‑man for people who—I'll put it in my own words—are too damn lazy, too uninterested, too incurious to go out and look for themselves. I feel very, very strongly that the reason there was such a tremendous and responsive readership for Bonfire of the Vanities was that, whatever one may think of its merits as fiction, Tom Wolfe went out into the world to write about it, a world that readers recognized because it bore some resemblance to their own or to one in which they might someday find themselves. I think there must have been a big, collective sigh of relief among genuine readers: here's a novel that's about my experiences. When I was young, there were writers like John Marquand, John O'Hara and Irwin Shaw who were writing about America and American middle‑class life. They were writing well. They were writing seriously. They also had readers and something that could be called popularity. This has completely vanished from the American literary scene. We don't have anything even remotely comparable to it anymore. I think it's a great loss.

You've mentioned all these authors and legendary works of fiction. Where precisely does A Fan's Notes stand in relation to the rest of American literature?

It's presented as a work of fiction, but is essentially and transparently not. In an era when the confessional memoir has become the flavor of the hour—everybody's writing them—A Fan's Notes is the confessional memoir that every other one must be measured against. It's the model of the genre. It's not self‑exploitative, but self‑exploring. It's not an act of hubris, but an act of self‑inquiry. And it's an attempt to connect a self, however oddly, however perversely, with the larger world. Freddy wanted to make himself interesting to other people. Too many memoirists, most of whom are too young and callow to have an experience that would interest other people, also are just not interested in trying to make us interested. They think that they are so inherently fascinating that all they have to do is start writing and we will all gasp with admiration. On the other hand, Fred made the stupendous effort to entertain us. It's an amazingly funny book, an incredible pleasure to read. The prose is rich, the anecdotes are funny and the incidents of story are so true and telling. Now this is someone who was really busting his butt to make us want to read his story. That's a very rare phenomenon. I wrote a piece for the Post back in the very early 80s about a little less than two dozen American works of fiction in the twentieth century that I regarded as essential reading. A Fan's Notes was one of those and would certainly be one now. Every once in a while, I have reason to go back and look at that list. There might be a book or two I'd put on or take off, but A Fan's Notes, in my foreseeable future, is right there. I think it's one of the real literary monuments of this century in this country.