The honesty of the book verges on the terrible. No one was ever harder on Fred Exley than Fred Exley himself. Each of his faults is isolated, explored, magnified. He does not let himself get away with anything. If in the end he achieves a kind of peace and self-justification, it is because he has earned it. Whereas many writers write about themselves purely for therapeutic reasons and neglect to draw the reader in, Fred knows at every step that honesty is the only way to convince the reader, and he offers it up in vast amounts. If reading the book is a thrilling experience---and it is---it is horrifying as well, for the spectacle of a fellow human being exposing his innermost self with such unflinching candor is not always easy to watch.
It should be mentioned, too, that Fred's use of football is unmatched in American literature. Only Bernard Malamud, in The Natural, comes as close as Fred does to exploring the metaphorical implications of sport in American life. One reason it is hard to believe Fred's reflexive criticism of other aspects of the United States is that his delight in the violence of this distinctly American game is so obvious and rich. No one has written more revealingly than he about how Americans live vicariously through the exploits of the "heroes" of sport, or about how capriciously "fame" can be awarded or withheld.
As this reminds us, Fred had the courage in A Fan's Notes to wrestle with large, important themes. The face in the American crowd has been the focus of many substantial works of fiction and nonfiction---Jack London's neglected novel Martin Eden (1909) is one of the first and best---but in few places does it receive such provocative consideration as it does in A Fan's Notes; the multilayered approach in which both Earl Exley and Frank Gifford are employed to consider the varieties of fame and its meaning, as well as the connections between the famous and the ordinary, is genuinely original. Few questions matter more to Americans than the place of the individual in a populous, heterogeneous, unfeeling society; Fred's examination of the psychological weight of this is powerful and haunting.
Tags: Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes