It’s a memoir cloaked as fiction. Partly it concerns Exley’s football fandom, particularly an obsession with his ex-classmate Frank Gifford.
But mainly it’s a drunk memoir. Yes, yet another drunk memoir. Reading the Times Sunday Book Review, I keep asking myself, how many substance abuse memoirs must we endure? Didn’t Malcolm Lowry and William Burroughs, among others, cover that territory quite adequately? Yet it seems there’s a new one every darn week, which the Times remorselessly deems worthy of sober attention. Similarly prolific are the bad parent memoirs. Some even combine the two genres (vide Domenica Ruta’s new book, With or Without You). Do we never tire of reading about drunks, addicts, and lousy childhoods? Is it schadenfreude?
While Exley offers his book as fiction, it actually follows his own life pretty closely, in all its yucky glory. Yes, the writing is quite droll, occasionally piquant and amusing, sometimes “searing” or “gut-wrenching,” the usual type of adjectives applied to such books, but in the end it’s just another drunk memoir. And given what a thorough and thoroughly useless drunk Exley actually was, the only edifying thing about the book is the bare fact that someone leading so disorderly a life was able to get it written, and published.
One could possibly read it as a morality tale – this is how not to live. The downside is certainly vivid here. And yet the narrator seems to be having more fun than suffering. Even thrown in the insane asylum, even while undergoing insulin shock and electroshock treatments – sometimes simultaneously – he still basically seems to be enjoying himself.
Also, considering what a full-time drunk Exley was, his life was quite successful, in its way. It’s amazing how many jobs he was actually able to land, and how many people willingly catered to his fecklessness, how many folks’ couches he was able to literally domicile on.
And then there’s the sex. Even when Exley is drowning in drink, living on someone else’s sofa, unshaven and unbathed, he’s still getting chicks galore. And not ones the cat dragged in, mind you. One time, he has awesome sex with an awesome beauty, who insists he write down her address and phone number. What was his appeal? I guess you had to be there. But afterwards, so cocksure is he about his ability to repeat such conquests at will that he ostentatiously crumples and throws away the paper. This he later regrets, horribly; but of course horrible regret does go with the territory.
To be sure, the book is not given under oath, and presumably the sex escapades are somewhat fantasized. Still, these aspects of the novel, and others too, serve to glamorize the life. For all the offsetting awfulness, Exley seems to be saying he was really living – in contrast to the drab semi-existence all us normal dopes experience (derisively portrayed by the author). Thus it’s a subversive book (not in a good way).
One might imagine that achieving, in spite of everything, serious literary acclaim, would have made some difference in Fred Exley’s life. It did not. He was not detoured from his true vocation: booze. He continued exactly as before. Exley managed to survive another quarter century of this, dying at 63 after congestive heart failure and a couple of strokes. His further literary efforts were feeble failures (probably because they were, typically, not efforts at all).
My main reaction to this book was: what a waste. Because, as my previous comments indicate, to have negotiated through life, and loves, not to mention publishing’s shark pool, as Exley managed to do, all the while saturated in alcohol, must have taken some prodigious talents and resourcefulness. Just imagine if such talents had been put to better use.