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.