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Summer Reading Part 6: Two Fun Reads

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This is my last set of recommendations for summer reading. I have two very fun reads. The first, The Trouble With Normal, was written by my former professor at Yale, the great queer theorist Michael Warner, and the second is a book by Frederick Exley called A Fan's Notes that Judd Apatow recommended to me ten years ago when I was trying to read Dante and Nietzsche on the set of Freaks and Geeks. Warner's book is a smart and fun look at gay marriage and anti-normative lifestyles. He makes the liberating argument that the heteronormative lifestyles might learn more from queer lifestyles than the opposite, that instead of having the gay and queer communities try to conform to the hetero mainstream, maybe the mainstream might learn something from those wacky people living "alternative" lifestyles. As gay marriage is very much on people's minds, this is a book that can blow your mind about how we are taught to see ourselves in this country -- straight, gay and otherwise -- and how we can all learn to be still more open to variety.

Fredrick Exley's A Fan's Notes is purported to be highly autobiographical and, despite his disclaimer at the beginning, I think that it must be, at least, very inspired by actual events:

Though the events in this book bear similarity to those of that long malaise, my life... I have drawn freely from the imagination and adhered only loosely to the pattern of my past life. To this extent, and for this reason, I ask to be judged a writer of fantasy.

Regardless of whether it's fact or fiction, the book is written like a memoir, and because of that it is highly episodic. Like any life, this one is unshapely and chaotic, not laid out according to Aristotelian unity or Freytag's dramatic structure. But despite this, Exley achieves a flow of information by using techniques that either delay the conclusion of one event in order to give momentum to the exploration of another event, or introduce an idea early so that it can be seamlessly picked up later and explored while capitalizing on the inertia from the event previously related.

In the first three chapters, the character and his issues are well developed by a series of explorations that go deeper and deeper into the character and his past. These explorations are given momentum by the way that they are introduced, and what would otherwise be digressions about a character's past become detective-like examinations of how the character got to where he is. The book begins with the Note to the Reader mentioned above, which not only makes a disclaimer about the fiction/non-fiction nature of the book but also entices the reader to believe that the events are taken from the writer's life.

Next there are quotations from Nathaniel Hawthorne and Dylan Thomas, both of which deal with content that is unexpected of either writer. Hawthorne's quotation, from Fanshawe, is about the powerful attraction of fame, while Thomas' involves calling Wales an "old bitch" and a "sow." The juxtaposition of eminent writers, contemporary issues and slang is characteristic of what is to come in the book -- juxtapositions which deepen the book's level of reference (Hawthorne is evoked many times) while still maintaining a foothold in the otherwise non-intellectual worlds of professional sports and depraved levels of alcohol consumption.

The main character is named after the author, Frederick Exley, which is another aspect that conflates fact and fiction; whenever we hear a character call him "Ex," we are jarred out of the smooth flow of fiction and have to rethink the memoir/fantasy categories of the piece. It gives the confessional nature of the book support of authenticity while adding to the frisson created by the impossibility of separating fact from fiction. The character is an intellectual whose vocabulary is larger than that of anyone around him, but he spends his time slogging through the depressing activities of watching football in bars, studying fame from afar (mostly reading about it in newspapers) and getting treatment in mental facilities (including insulin and shock treatment). The infiltration of the world of a clinically depressed alcoholic is buoyed and enlivened by the character's intellectual strengths and sense of humor. A fun ambassador through contemporary hell.

After the epigraphs, the book opens with the arresting moment of a near-death experience, which is quickly interrupted, only to be picked up at the end of the first chapter 27 pages later. This delay gives time and inclination to get to know the character by raising the reader's interest through the natural instinct to hear how the opening episode concluded. The episode, an apparent heart attack that turns out to be a seizure, takes place when the character is in his thirties, after most of the events that will be recounted in the book; it is a point of grounding toward which many of the other experiences will lead. The opening paragraph establishes many key elements of the book: football, drinking, the era (the 1960s), New York State as a place of sad personal history and heritage for Exley, and the character's ill health (which will be both physical and mental):

On Sunday, the eleventh of November, 196-, while sitting at the bar of the New Parrot Restaurant in my home town, Watertown, New York, awaiting the telecast of the New York Giants - Dallas Cowboys football game, I had what, at the time, I took to be a heart attack.

We also learn on the first page that the seizure was caused on by anxiety and large amounts of drinking brought on by the recent news of his wife's intention to divorce him. The character's world is expanded, along with his personality, as we learn that he has long thought life not worth living. He is so jaded, in fact, that he employs the analogy of a lunatic putting a shotgun in his mouth and blowing his brains out to show how he regards his own life. But to come back from the brink of alienating nihilism, Exley shows that the seizure made the character aware that he does in fact care about life, another juxtaposition of two extremes that allows the character to wallow in the most depressing aspects of modern human existence while still making the situation entertaining and moving.

After the first page the book moves away from the seizure and plunges into the character's situation as a teacher, explaining why he frequents the Parrot Bar on the weekend and filling in the immediate blanks leading up to the seizure. We learn that he travels 50 miles from Glacial Falls to Watertown because he is an English teacher in Glacial Falls and the superintendant doesn't want the students to be exposed to their teacher when he is drunk. This is where Exley uses his technique of shifting the narrative's momentum to a new subject. Once he has established why he goes to the Parrot to drink, he colors in his experience as a teacher, dealing with willfully bad teachers and sadly ignorant students. After he establishes himself as the only actual cognoscente among swine, albeit a depressed and drunken cognoscente -- possibly because he has to deal with such people and such a disappointing world -- he then moves, on page 8, to the situation at the Parrot Bar and the rituals that he enacts there every week. After filling in these details, he uses the second half of the chapter to detail the night and day before the seizure, finally tying up the unfinished thread he began with. And, while that is being concluded, he introduces the subject of the next chapter, his father. After being examined at the hospital by a Dr. D, he is asked, "Earl Exley your father?" This casual question that has nothing to do with the seizure or anything that has come before, and after a little explanation from Exley about how his father was a local football hero, the chapter is rounded up without further mention of the father.

But this mention of his father is in fact the seed for the next chapter, which is a flashback that goes even further back than the first chapter and recounts Exley's childhood. And, in turn, that chapter ends with Exley's trip to a football game, where he behaves in an insane manner, providing the seed for the next chapter, which is all about his incarceration in a mental institution. Each event is prepared for by the previous event. There are strands that are started to be finished later, like the seizure. In the second chapter, it is football coach Steve Owen's death that provides the frame.

This book is a treat for anyone looking for a good fucking read. If anything, it shows that books above a ninth grade reading level can be as entertaining as Twilight.