Many times in bookstores I've gotten genuinely aggravated about this, but never spoke up. Some things require an occasion before they can be said.
Now here is a small occasion: the current issue of Rolling Stone (or is it Rolling Stones? I sometimes confuse the magazine with the rock band, which gives away my age). The current issue, anyway, includes an excerpt from the next novel of Frederick Exley, "Last Notes From Home."
Frederick Exley, if you were not aware, is the least known best writer in America. That description is not original with me; it passes around the country like a secret pyramid letter shared by the fortunate few. Now Rolling Stone has broken the chain.
If you were to inquire at one of th good bookstores, one of those serious bookstores with acres of books, it is very likely you will find a clerk who has read Exley, either "A Fan's Notes" or "Pages From a Cold Island" or probably both. This sensitive clerk will wax lyrical on the subject, sharing those deep and permanent remembrances which only great literature imparts. It is also likely that neither of Exley's books will be in stock.
His discovery by Rolling Stone will change all that, I hope, but there is a double joke involved. First, there is this small joke on the youthful readers of Rolling Stone. If they stumble upon Exley among the record ads, they may be attracted by his raunchy language and foul visions of the American Mammon, but there is no way for them to know from this fragment that Exley is profoundly hostile to their "youth culture" romantics (for one thing, he is an old-fashioned alcoholic). Exley is a primordial Puritan suddenly emerging in the plastic ooze of rock 'n' roll. His work is wasted on the young, who cannot possibly understand.
The second joke is on the cultural tastemakers who have failed to celebrate Exley sufficiently. They do doubt read Rolling Stone themselves to keep up with the young, the influential editors and Madison Avenue gnomes, I mean. I predict they will embrace Exley - the big bear-hug of Fame - now that they think he is some kind of freak hero.
Exley, in this excerpt from the third novel of his trilogy, speaks in the same voice. It is a kind of careening soliloquy which will strike most American male readers as strangely familiar, a guy talking about his life obsessively, with occasional raucous laughter, a moment of eloquence and pathos, then sliding into some anecdote which is grossly offensive. Also very funny.
We have all heard this guy somewhere before (we men and aging boys have, anyway) and immediately recognize the magic of his stotelling, Exley is the guy standing at the bar. Moderately gassed, telling more or less true stories we all have heard before, slipping off into fascinating asides, running on with a self-confidence which is staggering, pausing to ponder another beer.
Now there is something fundamentally pathetic but true in that vision: an implicit statement that American men have been so carved up and shrunk by events, circumstances, conditions that they are down to a last refuge, standing in a barroom, where they might speak, unabashedly, in their full voice (women have shrunk too. I think, perhaps to their own refuge in accusatory diaries).
Exley rebels. He pounds the bar and demands attention. And the other guys listen, wondrously, as he spins out this incredible story of himself, adventures, dreams, failures. The story is fantastic, yet so familiar to them.
Exley came of age in the 1950s in smalltown, upstate New York, with different heroes. One was his father who played semi-pro football and died young. Another was Frank Gifford, the great running back, who was scoring touchdowns for Southern Cal while Exley was a beer-drinking English major there.
Exley rooted for the courage and beauty of Frank Gifford, then he was racking them up for the New York Giants, while his own life spiraled in the other direction, from disillusion to total choas. "A Fan's Notes" is adult rebellion and discovery, particularly in its style. The modernists frown on adjectives, but Exley savors them, three or four at a time. The novel is high fiction, yet it records the real descent of his own life.
Exley stumbles through P.R. jobs, and cannot live with the sham, he chases after the millenial blond sex goddess (only to confront impotence once in bed with a goddess), he brutally confesses his own sham as an ordinary egotistical being.
The incredible element, which is very difficult to describe, is that Exley the hero emerges on the other side - after seamy indulgence, despite alcohol, despite his several turns in the nut house - he emerges with a kind of innocence. A remarkable trip, made believable by seamless writing, a recognizable truth about our times.
"Pages from Cold Island," as I read Exley, is a matter of exploration through this newly-claimed innocence, sorting out the things around him, rejecting dross, praising truth, whispering elegies to the perfect framents of modern life which are real. Edmund Wilson, in death, is real. Gloria Steinem, media superstar, is not real. Watertown, N.Y., is a real or at least Exley's close friends there. Norman Mailer in a New York literary bar is not. Life, as he says is a "cold island" with a few good drinking buddies.
Now there is no way in which "flower children" can understand this, not really. Their sense of things is still framed by the kind of stock child-romantic-innocent vision which started with Huck Finn and was exhausted by Holden Caulfield in "Catcher in the Rye." Innocent child looks at ugly world, innocent child discovers cruelty and hypocrisy, withdraws in pain.
This is probably the most cherished literary myth of American culture and Exley turns it upside down (which is perhaps why he was not instantly celebrated, despite the accessibility of his prose). Exley is the opposite of innocent yough; he did not invent deceit and cruelty but he certainly elaborates on them.
I think that is a more truthful statement of where we will all begin in modern America (or where we began anyway), a land where the struggle is quite different from the literary conventions of the past. Exley discovers something new about heroism, in which a man or woman may work, however clumsily, toward some sort of adult innocence. Holden Caulfield was cute, but no longer believable. Everyone has a lot of Exley's grossness to confront and the same world of crazy fragments.
If I am right about that, then Exley's third novel will perhaps be the most courageous of the trilogy. The excerpt suggests he is confronting the noble question of patriotism in an era when that word was befouled by lies, murders, treachery. He is writing about his older brother, now dead, who was a colonel in some sort of super-secret spy work. Family and country are together in that brother, love and perhaps horror. It will be fascinating to see if he can get at the truth of that and important if he succeeds.
In the meantime, all mature readers will go out and buy his books (if they can find them) and see for themselves. It is even possible, I admit reluctantly, that some of Exley's sensibilities will hit home with some of those young readers of Rolling Stone. Like the rest of us, they are all older than they used to be.