A Neglected Classic: Fredrick Exley’s “Pages from a Cold Island”

Is Frederick Exley’s neglected novel, Pages from a Cold Island, one of the great American classics of the 1970s?  It is out of print, so it has few fans.  It is one of the best novels I’ve read this summer, along with such wildly disparate selections as Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, Balzac’s Cousin Pons, and Seneca’s De Otio (On Leisure). Did the critics give Exley a break?  Not at The New York Times, where  Alfred Kazin droned on about how much he loathes the non-fiction novel (which is known as autofiction now.)

I am a great fan of Exley’s acclaimed novel, A Fan’s Notes, and  Pages from a Cold Island is a brilliant, if unconventional, sequel.  Much of it takes the form of a homage to Edmund Wilson, who died in 1972. 

At the time of Wilson’s death,  Exley is sobering up at his mother’s house in upstate New York and preparing to teach for a semester in Iowa City at the Writers’ Workshop.  He almost misses Wilson’s obituary in The Watertown Gazette, his hometown paper, because  he is riveted to an  article about the arrest of one of his ex-pupils for possession of unprescribed amphetamines.  The ex-pupil had once called him a cocksucker:  “we’d been reading Shakespeare and apparently his diseased mind had equated an appreciation for the Bard with a yearning to envelop inflamed penises with  my oral cavity.” (Exley then slammed the boy against the blackboard and slapped him.)

Exley is depressed by the brief death notice.  He considers Wilson, who grew up near Exley’s hometown, the greatest American writer.  Exley is indignant about the TV news coverage:  both the local news anchor and Walter Cronkite give Wilson only three or four sentences.  And Exley becomes obsessed with Wilson, as he tries to make a syllabus for his workshop students.  Should he assign Hecate County or To the Finland Station?  And then, while rereading Nabokov’s Pale Fire, he becomes convinced that the model for  Nabokov’s “‘shaggy’-headed, downhome, and aging poet John Shade was Wilson!”  

But Exley gets a grip and fussily explains his mania:  “Well aware of their celebrated feuds over Eugene Onegin and Wilson’s by no means that uncomplimentary portraits of ‘Volodya’ and his wife Vera in Upstate (both of which feuds, frankly, were carried to distasteful extremes suggesting both men were playing games), I thought that so gratuitously injecting Wilson into Nabokov’s novel resulted from nothing more than the guilt I felt that so hard by his death I had determined to read Pale Fire and hadn’t yet decided on the Wilson fiction.”

At Singer Island, Florida, where Exley lives in a beach hotel and spends most of his time drinking, he becomes obsessed with Gloria Steinem, the celebrity feminist writer who founded Ms. magazine and co-founded and organized famous feminist organizations and events.  He spends days preparing for what turns out to be an uncomfortable four-hour interview with Steinem, who is not the angry feminist he’d expected, but a charming, outspoken, well-informed woman.  But the interview doesn’t go well: there isn’t much connection between them, which he blames on using a tape recorder instead of taking notes.  She does not answer his final questions bu mail, as she’d promised, because someone told her nasty things about Exley.

He also describes his semester at Iowa, which he does not enjoy. The talented workshop students turn out to be such brutal critics of each other’s work that he dreads the mayhem.  The literature class goes well, because he teaches his beloved Wilson and Nabokov, and is accepted as an authority. However, Exley spends most of his free time drinking at Donnelly’s, a bar for hardcore alcoholics, or a dive called the Deadwood with the Epstein brothers, owners of a bookstore, and their store manager, Danny.  That apparently is great fun, but even so Exley cancels his seminars a week early and heads back to Florida – where nothing is expected of him.

The Sports Injury: Richard Ford’s “The Sportswriter” & Frederick Exley’s “A Fan’s Notes”

There is nothing more tedious than a sports injury.

I have been limping because of a sports injury. (I hurt my back during power yoga).  And so I have been thinking about sports in literature. The male protagonists tend to watch sports rather than play them, so their injuries are mental rather than physical. 

Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter (1986), the first volume in the Frank Bascombe tetralogy, is an American sports classic. Frank accepts a job as a sportswriter because he has become indifferent to fiction writing.  He wants desperately to live on the surface, to feel nothing, since his oldest son died; he and his wife, X, a golfer and voracious reader, are divorced and unhappy.  But X must keep it together and raise their two younger children, while Frank sets out to be the most superficial man in the world.

He takes his girlfriend, a nubile young nurse, Vicki, to Detroit, which she pronounces DEE-troit.  Frank seems to regard Vicki as a pet, which she figures out eventually. 

And Frank is too cheap to pay for the weekend, so he arranges to interview  Herb Wallagher, a paraplegic ex-ball player in Detroit.  But Herb is so bitter that Frank’s interview will prove unusable.  And we can’t really blame Frank or Herb. 

“Do you ever miss athletics?”

Herb stares at me reproachfully.  “You’re an asshole, Frank, you know that?”

“Why do you say that?”

“You don’t know me.” 

“That’s what I’m doing here, Herb.  I’d like to get to know you and write a good story about you.  Paint you as you are.  Because I think that’s pretty interesting and complex in itself.”

“You’re just an asshole, yep, and you’re not going to get any inspiration out of me.  I dropped all that.  I don’t have to do for anybody, and that means you.  Especially you, you asshole.  I don’t play ball anymore.”

Frank’s attitude towards sportswriting is comparable to Herb’s attitude toward sports.  There will be no joy in the interview for Frank.  In the next volume of the tetralogy, Independence Day, Frank has given up sportswriting and gone into real estate.

Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, a fictional memoir published in 1968,  is an early example of autofiction.  The narrator, Exley, an alcoholic, is anxious before every Giants game. His personal life is also anxious: he is in and out of mental hospitals, sponges off his parents, or occasionally lives at a bachelor friend’s apartment.  

His obsession with sports is almost manic-depressive. His father was a local high-school and college football star. And then Exley went to USC with Frank Gifford, who became a player for the Giants.   Exley never knew Gifford. He partly identifies with him, but also hates him. 

When Exley lands a teaching job at a high school, we hope he’ll prosper. But he is disturbed by the limitations and ignorance of the English faculty.  One of the teachers tells him not to talk during meetings:  it takes up too much  time.  Exley pities the  chair of the department, who talks into a void.

Unsure of our ability to read (our ability to talk hadn’t encouraged him), he read each and every item [on a mimeographed sheet] to us….  Matchlessly vapid, the items were such that I remember only one of them, and that only because to this day I have no notion what he meant by it:  The best place to make out your lesson plans is at your desk.

It’s no wonder that Frank drives every weekend to another town so he can sit in the bar, drink too much, and watch the Giants games.  This novel is unflaggingly male, teeming with beer, gin, football, TV, depression, hospitalizations, and bachelor’s pads. The obsession with a sport he’ll never play seems to be part of Exley’s mental illness.

 You have to read past  Exley’s sexist attitudes, because this is an American classic.

We need a revival of Exley’s work.  A Fan’s Notes is the first of a trilogy. Perhaps a Library of America edition?

These brilliant sports novels are not just for men. I wish I could think of one by a woman, but nothing comes to mind.

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