“A Fan’s Notes” and Frank Gifford

Frank Gifford had something of a legendary life, and his death reminds me of Frederic Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, published 47 years ago and still ranked #211 in contemporary literature on Amazon.

Here is the novel’s synopsis from Wikipedia:

A Fan’s Notes is a sardonic account of mental illness, alcoholism, insulin shock therapy and electroconvulsive therapy, and the black hole of sports fandom. Its central preoccupation with a failure to measure up to the American dream has earned the novel comparisons to Fitzgerald‘s The Great Gatsby. Beginning with his childhood in Watertown, New York, growing up under a sports-obsessed father and following his college years at the USC, where he first came to know his hero Frank Gifford, Exley recounts years of intermittent stints at psychiatric institutions, his failed marriage to a woman named Patience, successive unfulfilling jobs teaching English literature to high school students, and working for a Manhattan public relations firm under contract to a weapons company, and, by way of Gifford, his obsession with the New York Giants.

Exley’s introspective “fictional memoir”, a tragicomic indictment of 1950s American culture, examines in lucid prose themes of celebrity, masculinity, self-absorption, and addiction, morbidly charting his failures in life against the electrifying successes of his football hero and former classmate. The title comes from Exley’s fear that he is doomed to be a spectator in life as well as in sports.

The novel made so deep an impression on me when I read it that I’m afraid to reread it and risk being disappointed (the way I was disappointed by Pynchon’s V when I re-read it a few years ago).  Today Slate reprinted an article about it from 1997:

First published in 1968, the book has been kept alive by zealous readers who feel compelled to promote it, Amway-style, to everyone they meet. Read a chapter or two and you’ll know why. Written by a self-pitying autodidact for consumption by self-pitying autodidacts, A Fan’s Notes divides the world into two camps: tortured, bewildered misfits (Exleys) and serene, fair-haired conformists (Giffords). In America, Exley implies—indeed, he shouts it—a person is either a suffering poet or a cheerful drone.

In the years after A Fan’s Notes I kept hoping that Exley would come up with something to rival it.  But he never did.  His other two novels/memoirs were pale imitations, and in real life he was, of course, slowly drinking himself to death (he died in 1992 at the age of 63).  Gifford outlasted him by 23 years, but he didn’t quite manage to age with the dignity befitting his glory days as a football hero.  I wonder if Exley’s one great book will ultimately be what we remember about Gifford.