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Frank Gifford and the Meaning of Life,
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This review is from: A Fan's Notes (Paperback)
A buddy of mine used to give a Christmas party every year that everyone eagerly looked forward to. The reason was that he, more than anyone else, would get outrageously drunk. Standing next to the keg in the garage, tipping back and forth, he would insult everyone who came near him in the vilest, most obscene terms. The rest of us stood out there laughing until our bellies hurt. The beauty of these parties was that the host's getting crazy allowed everyone else to feel a little freer to cut loose themselves. The parties ended up getting very wild and were huge fun.
I thought of this while reading A Fan's Notes, not just because the author is an unabashed, morbid alcoholic (although he is), but because he is so many other horrible things as well. In and out of insane asylums; watching soap-operas for days on end while lying on his mother's davenport, eating oreos and masturbating; tormenting his father-in-law; abandoning his wife--that this loser, this crawling degenerate, was able to put together this magnificent, hilarious, scathing piece of literature . . . well, it should give even the most unworthy of us hope that we might be able to do the same. No matter how drunk you got at the Christmas party, the host was always drunker. No matter how irrelevant you may think your life is, Mr. Exley's was way more so.
It is a fictionalized memoir, which means that basically he wrote about his life and gave himself the liberty to stretch things here and there. Don't look for a straight-forward, page-turning, sequenced plot here. It is the kind of a book where the author starts to talk about something, which reminds him of something else, which then requires him to go into a lengthy background explanation. He starts his story in the New Parrot Lounge in Watertown, New York, watching the New York Giants on TV. It isn't until page 365--twenty pages before the end of the book--that he finally gets back to this thread. But if you understand this to begin with--that you're not going into some pot-boiler--and allow yourself to be patient, you will be in for a thrilling, profound, and hugely entertaining read.
His tale begins with the story of his complex relationship with his father, a football star himself, whom young Exley adored. But his confusion and his his father's apparent dislke of him is never resolved, as his father dies at age 40. From there it's college, and drinking, and home, and drinking, and work, and drinking, and a couple of failed relationships, and drinking, the davenport, and then in and out of the insane asylum three times. His observations throughout all of this are sharp, intelligent, and often wildly funny. He drinks, he says, because he cannot tolerate the clarity of constant sobriety. He fails, he says, because he does not fit in contemporary America. He doesn't like or understand it. Indeed, he loathes it, and in truth, there is much to loathe. Films, television, omnipresent mendacity, pseudo-intellectuals; his observations are a scathing indictment of our often petty, trivial, close-minded society.
But "it," America, cannot abide him either, and when he tries to hide from it he is institutionalized. His accounts of this experience, and the electro-shock treatments and insulin therapy he is administered there, are as searing as anything I have ever read on the subject. We come to understand that these well-intentioned but ultimately sadistic treatments, rather than cure one, instead simply cow one into submission.
The central metaphor of this book is that his life, in a very odd way, is tied to the football New York Giants of the late fifties and early sixties, and especially to Frank Gifford, a Giant, and Exley's contemporary. While everything else in his life is going out of control, his handle on reality is this team, and their star flanker. Indeed, he attended USC when Gifford was there, and moved back to New York at the same time Gifford became a Giant. He admires them; their quality is the one thing he can understand with lucidity. And it is Gifford's season-ending injury, suffered at the hands of Chuck Bednarik in 1960 (an event which every person claiming to be a football fan ought to know about), which shocks him into an understanding of his own mortality. He finally realizes that there is only a finite amount of time to waste being a drunk.
As I mentioned, the book is often wildly humorous, but at the same time it can be very powerful. It is difficult to quote from because the style simply does not lend itself to one-liners or sound-bites, but I will give it a try. Bumpy, his brother-in-law, initially comes across as a clown, a drunk, and an obnoxious buffoon. We laugh and laugh at Exley's description of his barroom forays and his filthy apartment. And then: "Beneath his wooden jollity, Bumpy was consuming himself with hate; and for one so seemingly self-conscious, so oppressivley inward, so apparently aware of nothing outside his own filthy tongue, Bumpy had an acute, nearly pathological insight into the temperature of those about him." Pow! Our little Bumpy is quite a bit more complex than we imagined.
Exley is unsparingly honest, describing his often disgraceful behaviour in the most lurid terms, and between that which he does and that which is done to him this book--despite its glaring intelligence--could have easily sunk into wallowing self-pity. But it never does, and that, I think, is why it emerges triumphant. It is a book written with wry bemusement and self-deprecating humor, and by one who, despite everything, has made the astonishing discovery that he likes himself. This book is a real original. A superior achievement.
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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 28, 2009 10:35:52 AM PDT
Texas Lady says:
Very well put.
Posted on Aug 9, 2010 5:54:04 PM PDT
L. Camuti says:
Great review, thanks, Your comments on institutionalization immediately bring to mind Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (i've not read the Burgess book.)
Posted on Oct 2, 2010 6:27:09 PM PDT
Jim Greene says:
Thanks for the well written review. Now I've GOT to read the novel!
In reply to an earlier post on Aug 2, 2011 9:44:36 AM PDT
Michael W. Sturdevant says:
Not to be pedantic, but "Clockwork Orange" is more about the now debunked theory that you can condition the evil out of someone. Electro-shock and insulin therapy were intended to cure depression and schizophrenia.
But, yes, I agree this is a great review of a GREAT novel.
Posted on Oct 15, 2011 10:32:08 PM PDT
Amazon Customer says:
This is one of those books that blew me away at the time I knew some of the places he wrote about. Having grown up in Westchester and NYC, his locales are very familiar to me. The book inspired me to become a writer.
Posted on Aug 7, 2013 4:12:36 PM PDT
Joseph Healey says:
Excellent review. Read in the December blizzard of 2009 in Virginia en route back to New York. Been thinking of Exley a lot lately, and yr review's solidified my re-reading. Forgot about the masturbation and Oreos.
Posted on Aug 11, 2014 3:56:41 PM PDT
Tony Thomas says:
This book really comes to a dead end realization that his has to come to grips with all of this stuff and be a person who gets along in the world realizing the awful limitations of life. Exley suffered from congenital mental illness of the type that we now know have a decisive medical content and require medication, while in the fifties and early 60s covered in the book, they were thought of as emotional problems, or the medications had such extreme side effects that few people could maintain a healthy life while taking them.
This book received extreme literary acclaim when it was published and was viewed as a secret private pleasure by fiction riters in the late 70s and 80s when it was in vogue.
Frank Gifford himself recognized its excellence. In 1986 when the Giants played in the Superbowl for the first time, Frank Gifford invited Exlely to attend the game as his guest, flying him out to California, and putting him up in a hotel. I heard him say once on TV that he would be proud if any of his children did something as good as write a book as good as this
Posted on Apr 14, 2015 2:35:59 AM PDT
Thank you for your lucid and well-crafted review.
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