Monday, November 26, 2007

A Fan's Notes

Driving home from a friend’s Grey Cup party last night we passed the dark hulking mass of Commonwealth Stadium, empty and even a bit menacing on a cold November night. We had just watched those loveable losers, the Saskatchewan Rough Riders, win the Cup for the first time this millennium, and only the third time ever, but the game itself was rather dull. April is the cruellest month, but November is the grimmest. Neither fall nor winter, just grey and glum.
Perhaps one should read uplifting, happy books in November to dispell the gloom. But maybe novels work like the Blues – depressing music that is paradoxically cheering. If so, then Frederick Exley’s classic novel, A Fan’s Notes, should be worth a year of Prozac as this thinly-fictionalized memoir is truly grim. Michael Schaub picked it for the Bookslut blog's Top 100 Books of the 20th Century list, but gives fair warning to readers:
A Fan's Notes is more beautifully written than 99.5% of the books I've ever read; it's a nearly perfect piece of art. Did I enjoy reading it? No, no, good God, no. ....
I'm not sure I have the heart to urge this book on any of my friends, all of whom have quite enough depression in their lives already. In fact, sometimes I wish I could un-read it. But I'm damn sure convinced that this belongs on the 100 Books list; I am utterly certain of its worth. I'll never forget it; I'll never stop wishing that I could.
First off, much of the book is set in Exley's hometown, Watertown, a small city in upper New York state. I lived in Kingston, Ontario years ago, and Watertown was the closest US town. I went there on Sundays when I needed a bottle of wine with dinner (this was the olden days when the LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) was closed on Sundays). The drive from Ontario through northern New York was depressing - true grey, economically depressed, grim landscape. It was full of those towns you drive through and wonder, what on earth do people do here to survive?
That grey, grim landscape of northern New York sets the tone for Exley's book, which is essentially a recounting of Exley's life of failure. Throughout the book we have are treated to Exley's thoughts on football, or more accurately, the existential emptiness of sports fandom. In the novel Exley is obsessed with the NFL's New York Giants, and particularly their star running back, Frank Gifford (yes, future husband of Kathie Lee...).

Walter Krin in Slate notes that "the drunken bore of A Fan's Notes is never boring. He's vibrant with resentment, alive with failure, a sad sack superman." That's it exactly - 'alive with failure'. Like a Bukowski madman, Exley's nutbar protagonist is magnetic. And like a car crash - you can't look away.


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