"Exley," a new comic novel by Brock Clarke
By Brock Clarke
Algonquin. 303 pp. $24.95
Brock Clarke reduced large swaths of the literary landscape to ashes in "An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England," his wickedly funny 2007 novel that skewered everything from book clubs and Harry Potter to falsified memoirs -- especially nervy, that last, since Clarke's text assumed the form of a memoir. Yet for all its wit, "An Arsonist's Guide" was deadly serious in its examination of the stories we tell ourselves about our lives and the awkward disconnect between reality and what we'd like to believe. It seems apt, then, that his new novel pays tribute (if you can call it that) to the real-life American novelist Frederick Exley and his 1968 "fictional memoir" called "A Fan's Notes."
At the beginning of "Exley," 10-year-old Miller Le Ray tells us that "A Fan's Notes" is his father's favorite book. Indeed, it was the only book Miller ever saw him reading, and his father moved to Watertown, N.Y., because it was Exley's home town. So when Miller learns "on Sunday, the eleventh of November" (a date that resonates with the opening sentence of "A Fan's Notes") that dad is back from Iraq and in a coma at the local VA hospital, he decides to go in search of Frederick Exley. If he can bring the author to meet his father, then somehow everything will be okay.
There are a few difficulties with this scenario. Exley died in 1992, for starters. And it's not entirely certain where Miller's dad went eight months earlier when he left his wife crying in the driveway. "His mother believes strongly that his father left them, but not to join the army and not to go to Iraq," writes a therapist whose notes alternate with the boy's narrative. This first entry appears in the novel's epigraph, underneath a quote from "A Fan's Notes" that gives fair warning there will be no sure facts in the tale that follows.
Clarke pulls off a nice trick here, playing postmodern games while delivering a cleverly plotted story complete with a surprise twist embedded in Miller's partial understanding of his parents' tension-riddled relationship. The payoff is a long time coming, however, and by no means alleviates the unease aroused by the preceding chapters, as Miller hunts for Exley and finds, first, a decrepit janitor at the New Parrot motel; next, a drunken customer at a bar called the Crystal; and last, a shotgun-wielding old man at the end of Oak Street. These locations will be familiar to those who know "A Fan's Notes," as will grotesquely comic developments that recall "An Arsonist's Guide." But black humor that was edgily appropriate in novels with adult protagonists is much more unsettling when employed to depict the misadventures of a young boy.
Granted, Miller doesn't sound like any boy you've ever met, not even one who's in eighth grade and has recently read "Waiting for Godot." That's a problem; some of Clarke's stinging social observations suffer from being implausibly placed in Miller's mouth. The author is more skillful in crafting the words of Miller's therapist, an insecure man whose pompous description of himself as "a mental health professional" becomes a running joke, while his crush on his patient's beautiful mother evolves from creepy to oddly touching. She's a lawyer prosecuting cases of domestic abuse in the military at nearby Fort Drum, and fallout from the Iraq war swirls as an undercurrent to the story's main drift.
The action gets increasingly bizarre. The therapist visits Miller, pretending to be Exley. Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley makes a cameo appearance, reciting passages from "Misfit," his 1997 biography of Exley. All three head for Watertown's Brookside Cemetery, where Exley is buried. Or is he? Clarke keeps us guessing, rolling out a series of discoveries that indicate Miller has imagined the whole thing, including his father's presence at the VA hospital, then taking an abrupt turn to suggest that the boy may have got it right after all.
What is clear, and what gives the novel its emotional weight, is that Miller feels a painful kinship with Exley and his errant father, discontented dreamers whose inability to deal with the real world is the despair of sensible women like his mother. She wants to tell her son the truth about his father and their marriage, but Miller desperately doesn't want to hear it because her truth is "full of everything I couldn't stand to see." Clarke swiftly rings down the curtain on their confrontation, leaving us to decide whether it's better to grow up and face facts, or to cling steadfastly to the illusions that make life bearable.
Smith is a 2010 finalist for the National Book Critic Circle's Excellence in Reviewing Citation and a contributing editor at the American Scholar.