Frederick Exley (1929-1992) A Fan’s Life
By Steven Huff
It must have been around 1995 or ‘96 when I was in New York City, in the Village, and I wandered into The Lion’s Head bar with a friend. After we ordered our drinks I said, “I think this is where Fred Exley hung out.” The bartender overheard me and said, “Yes, and that’s where he sat, over there,” pointing to a stool a few feet away from us.
Probably no one talks about Exley without slipping, quite naturally, into a discussion of his alcoholism, nor does it distort our understanding of his books since his protagonist is himself. Once when I was interviewing T. C. Boyle for a magazine piece, and I brought up the uneasy ground between fiction and autobiography, Boyle shook his head and said, “Poor Fred Exley had to live every book he wrote.” Yes, poor Fred, because much of the discussion is wonderment that he made it to age 62. It reminds me of a quip by a woman who knew Winston Churchill; she said, or so it has been reported, “He was not an alcoholic. No alcoholic could drink that much.”
It was A Fan’s Notes, his first book, which raised Exley to prominence in the literary world. Far fewer people opened Pages from a Cold Island, and even fewer finished it. Or his final book, Last Notes from Home. In the view of most readers and critics, Exley’s best book was A Fan’s Notes. Some have suggested that he should have stopped there, because whatever he did after that was literary rambling. Either way, it is remarkable that one novel still earns him generations of fans. In one respect, the book belongs to the lineage of bawdy novels in which a brilliant misfit is pitted against a dour, proper society, such as Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth, J. P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, and The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B; except, more to the point, Exley’s character acts the unrepentant boor with a marked capacity for cruelty.
But its originality goes further than that, and the readers whose hands it fell into when it was published in 1968 realized that there was not another book quite like it: it’s not that a protagonist’s admission that his life was a malaise, a failure, is so unusual, it is that he said it so eloquently. And it resonated in high voltage with an American middle class that was breaking out of the staid society of the 1950s. And who would have believed that a football hero, in this case Frank Gifford, could be so metaphorically central to a literary novel.
Exley was born in 1929 in Watertown, on New York’s northern shore, when the town’s economy still ran on industrial jobs. He lived there, in nearby Alexandria Bay, and for relatively short stints in New York City and Los Angeles. His father, a power company lineman, was a much-admired local athlete, coach, and hard-drinking local ruffian. Fred might have followed in his footsteps, but he proved himself a bungler in football and instead became, simply, a hard-drinking writer. But the game was still deep in the intelligence of his heart, and so the admiration that he might have had for his father, or the vision that he might have had for himself as an athlete, was transferred to another idol–Giffard. In fact, Gifford was charmed by the attention he got in the novel, and even threw a party for Exley in New York in 1988. According to Thad Weitz, “Though Exley never explicitly makes the connection, the parallels between his father and Giffard are clear.”
When Mel Zerman, sales manager at Harper & Row, and Exley’s close friend, visited Watertown, he said that he understood why Exley drank so much. “There is nothing else to do in Watertown except drink.” Which is not exactly true. While it is no cultural mecca, it has the comfortable amenities of a small city where no one seems to be in a terrible hurry. My friend Keith McManus and I ate lunch at the Crystal Restaurant, which serves comfort food and calls itself the oldest established Watertown eatery; we had drinks in the friendly and comfy Johnny D’s in the downtown nineteenth-century Paddock Arcade. The Roswell P. Flower Memorial Library, erected in memory of New York State’s thirtieth governor, is a magnificent building that would be famous if it were in Manhattan with its stunning dome murals by Frederick Lamb depicting figures from classical mythology, St. John, and representative figures from all the major genres of literature and branches of science.
No one we talked to in town, including in the library, was aware that a famous novelist had lived in their midst. This was not a surprise. It is what I have found in numerous communities around the state who also had a deified writer. But when I told them about Exley it tweaked their curiosity.
For a city of its size (population 27, 023), Watertown, on the Black River, has an impressive list of notables in addition to Exley and Flower: Allen Welsh Dulles, one-time director of the CIA; John Foster Dulles, his brother and secretary of state; Robert Lansing, another secretary of state and the Dulles boys’ uncle; Allen and Joe Bouchard, members of the Blue Oyster Cult rock group; and Frank Winfield Woolworth, the department store tycoon. And let’s not forget Arthur Shawcross who moved to Rochester and became that city’s most notorious serial killer.
Claude Bragdon (b. 1866), architect, author and mystic, was a child in Watertown when it was a paper-mill town and his father wrote for the local newspaper. He recalls that the mills caught fire one night, and that he watched the flames with a secret elation, thinking that it was a rough justice for the workers who had died when a smallpox epidemic had swept through them, born on infected rags shipped to the mills.
Finding the Grave
Frederick Exley’s ashes are buried in Brookside Cemetery in the outskirts south of the city next to his parents Earl and Charlotte, and his twin sister and her husband.
Unless you are a local person, you will probably approach Watertown from US Route 81 North. Take Exit 45 for Arsenal Street (so named because Fort Drum is nearby), turn east and drive about two miles to the Public Square. You’ll see a monument to Gov. Roswell P. Flower (they liked him in Watertown) by American Renaissance sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Turn right at the Square onto South Washington Street. Continue driving south for 3 miles and turn left onto Watertown Center Loop (marked by a road sign with tiny writing, so be watchful). When you reach the first stop sign, the main gates of Brookside Cemetery will be staring you in the face.
The cemetery is lovely and well managed. But it is so large that it would have taken me a month to find Fred without the help of Tina Freeman in the office of the Superintendent. She looked him up on her database, and she kindly gave me a map and marked an X on Section 11, where Exley occupies Lot 26.
After you enter the gates, drive straight, down the hill, past the flag pole and uphill again all the way to where you will see the black fence, turn left and follow the meandering path keeping the fence on your immediate right, until you see the maintenance buildings, in the far, rear corner. The last section of graves on your right is Section 11. Exley and his family are about 50 feet from the back fence and about 40 feet from the big trees to your left as you face the fence. His stone bears an epigraph from a statement that is central to A Fan’s Notes: “It was my fate, my destiny, my end, to be a fan.”
Why Visit Fred Exley’s Grave?
To honor the author whose principal book has held a cult readership for so long that it is now generally recognized as a contemporary American classic? Because there is a Fred Exley in the soul of many Americans, especially men, a luckless Telemachus searching for a father, but incapable of living up to the father’s standard, who thus settles for a surrogate dad and the life of a mere fan filled with self-loathing and dragged down by alcoholism? Because afterward you can slip off to Lake Ontario and do some fishing? No, no, and maybe no. I went because his grave is the resting place of a man who, despite his self-afflictions, managed to write one very good book—one more than most of us will write—one that, like all good books, entertains while helping us to understand a bit more about what it means to be human.
I have drawn general biographical information from Jonathan Yardley’s excellent work, Misfit: The Strange Life of Frederick Exley, New York: Random House, 1997, which I strongly recommend to anyone with an interest in Exley. Information on Mel Zerman’s experience in Watertown is from, “Fred Exley: Mel Zerman remembers the author of A Fan’s Notes”. Interview for American Legends Bookstore, Glendale, CA. Web. 2015. (5/15/17). The story of Giffard’s party in New York for Exley is from, Mary Cantwell, “The Hungriest Writer: One Fan’s Notes on Frederick Exley.” New York Times. September 13, 1992. And the Weitz quote is from, Thad Weitz, “In Praise of Frederick Exley,” Shea Magazine, Web. March 28, 2013.
Text copyright by Steven Huff, 2018. Cemetery photo copyright Keith McManus 2017.