The Exley Files

Jonathan YardleyÕs relationship with the late Frederick Exley lasted nearly 15 years and remains one of the more improbable stories in contemporary American literature. It began the day Yardley, then book editor for the Greensboro, N.C. Daily News, casually threw a reviewerÕs copy of a new novel called A FanÕs Notes into a bag before leaving for Harvard on a Nieman Fellowship in 1968. Three decades later, Yardley, now a book critic and columnist for The Washington Post, has published Misfit: The Strange Life of Frederick Exley. In between 1975 and ExleyÕs death in 1992, Yardley exchanged numerous letters with the novelist, and received not a few boozy late-night phone calls from wherever Exley was crashing at the time. YetÑand hereÕs where it gets improbableÑthe two never met, not even during simultaneous extended stays in Florida.The reason for YardleyÕs interest in Exley is clear. At age 39 Exley published that rarest of books: A first novel that was immediately recognized as a work of art (it received a National Book Award nomination and other honors). The book went on to become a cult classic and has maintained a high critical reputation, even appearing in college curricula; a new Modern Library edition of the book was just issued by Random House.ItÕs an achievement any dedicated writer would envy but few will ever enjoy. And how someone such as Frederick Exley had the ability, let alone the stamina, to write A FanÕs Notes is one of the mysteries that makes his a strange life indeed. A guy from a small town in way upstate New York, Exley came from a loving, working-class family that had no artistic inclinations. (His dad Earl was a telephone-company lineman and local sports hero.) Fred did have a degree in English, earned from Southern Cal in 1953, a time when Frank Gifford, who figures prominently in A FanÕs Notes, was the big man on campus. Literary types didnÕt get the girls of the Golden West, as ExleyÕs novel ruefully makes clear. Yet 15 years after graduation, Exley, whose previous writings had been limited to public-relations work for the Rock Island Railroad and other businesses, published an autobiographical novel that Yardley, in 1982, placed on a list of 20th-century works of American fiction that he considered essential reading. As Yardley had won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1981, his imprimatur carried some weight. And it pleased Exley to no end, of course. Critic and novelist later struck up a relationship, yet never were in the same room. Their acquaintance was long and mostly cordial, but was there something that made Yardley cautious about letting Exley physically into his life? Sitting on the porch of his Baltimore home, Yardley answers briskly.ÒAbsolutely. . . . You know, when I worked at the Miami Herald, from Õ74 to Õ78, Freddie showed up there on one of his Florida jaunts. . . . At the time, I was a pretty heavy drinker of hard liquor. And I remember Freddie calling me from Singer Island and asking me to go up there and I thought, ÔJesus. If I go, this problem is going to get worse instead of better.Õ And thatÕs the reason I never went up to see him. Because I knew that drinking with Fred Exley wouldnÕt be a social occasion. It would be a drinking occasion.Ó Later, Yardley opines of his subject, ÒMostly he was drunk from the time he got out of Southern Cal until the day he died. He was probably drunk 80 percent of the time.ÓHow does a guy who was that intoxicated that often create a book like A FanÕs Notes, a very American novel about, in no particular order, Watertown, N.Y. (ExleyÕs birthplace), alcoholism, mental illness, and fanatical devotion to professional football, a novel that demonstrates a startling mastery of English prose, mixing sentences of Nabokovian complexity with smart-aleck humor and obscenity? Yardley, who addresses this question in detail in Misfit, answers succinctly.ÒI think there were . . . periods when he wasnÕt drunk. The most important ones were when he was in mental institutions. Nancy [ExleyÕs second wife] thinks he did his most important writing there, and I think sheÕs right. . . . Nancy believes he came out of Harlem Valley [a mental institution in New York state, called Avalon Valley in the novel] with pretty much an intact manuscript of A FanÕs Notes.Ó At this point Yardley gets fairly excited about the weird lack of solid evidence for how the book came to be.ÒI wish I knew more about that, and it just infuriates me that I have not been able to find more documentary evidence. It vanished from the Sterling Lord literary agency. It vanished from Harper [the original publisher]. We donÕt have his contract for A FanÕs Notes. We donÕt have any correspondence between him and [agent] Lynn Nesbit as she was trying to find a publisher. . . . All these people claimed to make good-faith efforts to find this stuff, but we donÕt have it.ÓBut this lack of a paper trail might have worked to YardleyÕs advantage as a biographer, because it made it easier to keep to his original intent. ÒI was very, very determined that this would be a short book,Ó Yardley says (and he achieved his goal, with Misfit checking in at less than 300pages). He also cites a seminar in American literary biography he took during his Nieman fellowship. Justin Kaplan, the teacher, Òhad a very great influence,Ó Yardley says. ÒI remember him being just utterly dismissive of Carlos BakerÕs Hemingway, which had just come out at the time. He was saying how Baker had thrown everything in . . . without seeking to distinguish between what was important and what wasnÕt.Ó Looking back, Yardley thinks he did somewhat the same with his first biography in 1977, Ring, about the 1920s journalist and short-story writer Ring Lardner.ÒGeoffrey Woolf reviewed the Lardner biography for the Post and, while he liked it, he said, ÔAt times, heÕs too much in love with his research.Õ And he was absolutely right! I was just determined to follow the Lytton Strachey model this time and focus not on what [Exley] did, but why he did it, who he was.Ó Ultimately Frederick Exley was a novelist who wrote one exceptional book that he then stretched, with very limited financial and artistic success, into a trilogy, following A FanÕs Notes with Pages From a Cold Island (1975) and Last Notes From Home (1988). Meanwhile Exley picked up some bucks doing occasional journalism for Esquire and Rolling StoneÑstories handed to him by editors who remained so in awe of his first novel that they rarely complained if ExleyÕs journalism proved unpublishable.Why was Exley never able to come within miles of repeating his initial achievement? ÒYou come here to that unanswerable questionÑbecause I do think A FanÕs Notes is a work of art,Ó ExleyÕs biographer says. ÒÔWhat is the price of art?Õ ItÕs not a sentimental or frivolous question . . . because making something like that requires an essentially deviant personality . . . an inability to adjust to life. ItÕs precisely out of that furious sense of otherness that something like A FanÕs Notes comes. And the price that the person pays who writes a book like that is terrible. . . .ÒFrom Thomas Wolfe to Ralph Ellison, we have ample evidence that when you bare a soul that completely, you canÕt do it again. You may want to try, because itÕs been successful. But itÕs just too much.ÓSo Frederick Exley, as Yardley unsparingly yet sympathetically shows, pretty much devoted the final quarter-century of his life to being Freddie ExleyÑcenter of attention at the LionÕs Head bar in New York, recipient of editorial largess, and long-term houseguest of tolerant friends. This toleranceÑeven loveÑfor a man who was very difficult at the best of times is the final mystery of ExleyÕs life.ÒGordie Phillips was FreddieÕs best friendÑheÕs the counselor in A FanÕs Notes,Ó Yardley says. ÒThere was a 50-year history between these two men. I went up to Rochester [N.Y.] and had a long, non-liquid lunch with Gordie. And he was telling me about FreddieÕs mooching. It went on and on and, at one point, I said, ÔGordie, why did you like this guy?Õ And he leaned back in his chair and said, ÔDamned if I know.ÕÓPerhaps what Exley wrote of himself is true of Gordie Phillips, and true of Jonathan Yardley too: ÒIt was my fate, my destiny, my end, to be a fan.Ó

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