Friday, July 06, 2007

Riding the train with Fred Exley.

On Monday, my daughter, Liz, and I rode Amtrak's Adirondack from Penn Station, New York City, to Plattsburgh, New York, en route to a visit with my in-laws in Massena. Packing for the trip, I took from the shelf where it has sat unread since I bought it some years ago my copy of Frederick Exley's Pages from a Cold Island.

One evening about fifteen years ago, I was where my bride had learned to expect me to be more often than she wished, which was at the bar of the Lion's Head, in Greenwich Village. After a few beers, I felt the inevitable (my maternal grandmother used to say, "Know why beer goes through you so fast? It doesn't have to stop to change color.") need to visit the room a few steps from where I was seated. Having spent thirty seconds or so reading the superurinary graffiti ("God made Shakespeare, then broke the mold. God broke the mold, then made Jacqueline Susann. Mailer will advise God what molds he's trying on.") and doing the obligatory manual ablution, I swung the door open and saw a man with disheveled hair and a sallow complexion, wearing a rumpled sport jacket, sitting on the barstool I had temporarily vacated. Tommy Butler, the bartender, spotted me and tapped the man on the shoulder, saying, "Hey! That's his place. You'll have to move." The man cast a plaintive glance at me as he slid off the stool and began to walk away. He seemed frail, and I wanted to say, "Wait. It's OK. You sit; I'll stand for a while." But Tommy, although genial and a great raconteur, would brook no challenge to any of his orders, even from their putative beneficiaries. So I retook my seat and got another beer. After a few minutes, when Tommy was out of earshot, I mentioned to a friend sitting next to me that I felt bad about the man who'd been ousted from my place. "Oh, yeah," my friend said, "that was Fred Exley."

I first heard of Exley some twenty years before the Lion's Head incident, when I was in my third year of law school. I had become acquainted with some Niemann fellows, experienced journalists who spent a year at Harvard studying whatever they wished. Prominent among these, in my memory, was Paul Hemphill (Update: I'm saddened to learn of Paul's death from throat cancer in July of 2009). Occasionally, seeking respite from discussions of shifting and springing remainder interests, I would join these worldly folk at their lunch table, where, among other things, I could hear Paul talk about country music, the subject of a book he was then writing (it's titled The Nashville Sound, has recently been re-released, and contains, among innumerable gems, two of the most felicitous geographical descriptions I've encountered: one of the topography of Middle Tennessee, which perfectly validated my own memory--"nursery rhyme hills that blip across the horizon as if drawn by a child's crayon"--and another of the city of Nashville, which, he wrote, "squats on the red banks of the Cumberland River like a frog about to jump"). Anyway, at one of these lunches Paul and the others were discussing a new book they were all excited about. It was A Fan's Notes, by a first-time author named Frederick Exley.

I didn't rush out, buy and read A Fan's Notes then; I had a third year paper to complete and finals to take. Indeed, I didn't read it until about fifteen years later, when another friend (at the Lion's Head, of course) recommended it. I got it, and loved it. A synopsis is here.

So, on that ill-starred night at the Head, I thought to leave my seat again and search for Exley in the crowd. But what would I say to him that hadn't been said by a thousand admirers before? Would he be in one of the foul, alcohol induced moods described in his book, and see fit to skewer me with sarcasm? Anyway, there was sure to be another, more propitious opportunity.

A few months later, paging through the Times, I saw his obituary.

Exley wrote two books after A Fan's Notes, the aforementioned Pages from a Cold Island and the ominously (and, unfortunately, accurately) titled Last Notes from Home. Neither of these garnered the critical praise the first book had received; Walter Kirn, citing Exley's biographer, Jonathan Yardley, pegs him as a "classic one-hit wonder."

I decided to bring Pages with me on this trip because I was headed into Exley country. He grew up in Watertown, New York, and, in his later years, he sometimes stayed with his widowed mother at her house in Alexandria Bay, the principal town of the Thousand Islands region, to which Larry, my stepfather-in-law, had promised to take Liz and me during our visit. Indeed, I thought I had read or heard that the "cold island" of the title was one of the Thousand, where Exley had camped out in a cabin while writing the book. Besides, Exley seemed an appropriate companion for a train trip. According to his bio, while still in high school he worked in the rail yards at Watertown. Later, he did public relations work for the New York Central, and after that for the Rock Island. So Exley at least shared, if not my love of, at least an affinity for, railroads.

As the Adirondack rolled northward through the Hudson Highlands, I found myself agreeing with the critics who dismissed Pages as an unworthy successor to A Fan's Notes. The island in question proved not to be one of the Thousand, but Singer Island, Florida ("cold" only in respect to Exley's emotional state while there), described by the father of one of Exley's woman friends, in an affidavit supporting his petition for custody of his grandson, as a "shabby resort area, the heart of Palm Beach County's drug culture, and a hothouse of whoredom, practiced both formally and informally." In other words, the very sort of place one might find an impecunious, alcoholic and perpetually horny writer holed up while trying to find a way to finish a book. After fifty or so pages of Dionysian drinking and coital calisthenics, both real and imagined (as I was reading Exley's account of his sport with an exotic dancer called Zita the Zebra Woman, I nervously glanced to my right to see if Liz was reading over my shoulder, and was relieved to find her studying To Light a Sacred Flame - Practical Witchcraft for the New Millennium), I felt rather as my wife must have after enduring ninety minutes of Oliver Stone's The Doors, when, with 111 minutes to go, she whispered to me, "This movie glorifies self-indulgence, and I'm bored."

So I closed the book, thinking to take a break, maybe read the Times for a while, or just enjoy the Hudson Valley scenery. As I was about to slide the book back into my bag, my eye was caught by the two blurbs on the back cover. The first was:

Even better than A Fan's Notes...marvelously funny. One of the truly remarkable personal chronicles of our time. - WILLIAM STYRON
Well, maybe Styron was among the minority who found A Fan's Notes unimpressive. Maybe, by "truly remarkable," he meant "truly remarkably awful." By 1975, when Pages came out, ol' Bill was surely wise in the ways of blurbsmanship. The second blurb, however, seemed more specific to my concerns:

Exley matters because beneath the surface of a life seemingly given over to too much booze and random sex and aimlessness, there is a true writer, an artist unseduced by fad and fashion. - JONATHAN YARDLEY, NEW REPUBLIC
This, of course, is the Yardley who later became Exley's biographer. So encouraged, I resolved to persevere, to see if I could get "beneath the surface." This proved a good resolution.

Pages is a mess, but it's a mess worth sorting through. A recurring motif in the narrative is the difficulty Exley had in completing it. At one point, he describes it as "unreservedly desolate." Its major theme is Exley's relationship with Edmund Wilson (for an excellent short summary of Wilson's life and works, see this New Yorker piece by Louis Menand), one that it's tempting to compare with his connection to Frank Gifford as described in A Fan's Notes. In both instances, there was a commonality of place, time or both: Exley and Gifford were students at Southern Cal at the same time, and Wilson, though born and raised in New Jersey, divided his later years between Wellfleet, on Cape Cod, and his mother's family's old stone house in Talcottville, New York, not far from Watertown. Despite this, Exley's contacts with both men were minimal. His closest encounter with Wilson was a telephone conversation, described in Pages as ending thus:
"Who are you?" And there was no doubt that he meant was I someone of such eminence that I should be pushing myself on him.

"Well, nobody," I said. "Look, I'm sorry, really sorry. I shan't bother you again."

Before ringing off, the great man, in his cooing pitch, spoke his last words to me:

"Stout fellow!"
The contrast between Gifford and Wilson, the football jock and the literary lion, is also obvious. Kirn sees Exley and Gifford as polar opposites:
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.
Wilson was anything but a cheerful drone, but he was hardly a suffering poet, either. By the middle of the twentieth century, he was universally known, and almost universally admired, in literary intellectual circles. His life was not without difficulties. As Menand observes:
He had three children, each from a different marriage. He moved a lot, usually from one shabby rented place to another, and, thanks to the divorces and, later, the negligence about taxes, money was a serious problem right up to the end. He was a functioning alcoholic but an angry drunk (one cause of the problems in the early marriages). His figure was not prepossessing. ... When it came to most physical activities, he was inept. He did not, for instance, know how to drive a car. But he was an ardent lover. Sex seems to have been the one place where he felt natural and in control, a zone of wholeness in a world that, for him, was characterized mostly by tension, rupture, and decay. The other place he must have felt that way, of course, was his writing.
Money problems, drinking, sex, disdain for popular and literary culture--Wilson seeemed to have much in common with Exley. Unlike Exley, though, he didn't cast himself as a beautiful loser. In Pages, Exley recounts saying this to his students at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop:
"Your real literary life," I offered as my one piece of tendentiousness, "will begin the day you accept the conditions, apartness, confusion, loneliness, work, and work, and work--the conditions so many of your peers have already accepted and that Edmund Wilson and his stone house so vividly and hauntingly evoke."

I asked the student to accept this from me as a man who understood these things too late, when alcohol, fatuous dreams and disappointed life had all too dearly sapped the youthful ambitions. Wilson's stone house, I said, was a condition of the heart, a willingly imposed isolation from the "literary scene" or anything resembling that scene. ... Do what I say, I said, and not what I've done, and I promised my student that, like Edmund Wilson, he would in the end hold up to America a mirrored tryptich from which, no matter in which direction America turn, she would--to her dismay, horror, and hopefully even enlightenment--be helpless to free herself from the uncompromising plague of her own image.
Wilson, then, was for Exley an ideal, an exemplar of what Exley, fulfilled, would have been. He wasn't perfect: Exley cites Wilson's Upstate, from which he quotes liberally in Pages, as an even-Homer-nods moment. But he pays Wilson perhaps the ultimate compliment. During one of Exley's institutionalizations, in deep depression, he says, Wilson's prose kept him alive.

There are minor themes as well in Pages, one of them concerning Gloria Steinem. Exley, who called himself apolitical, nevertheless loathed Nixon enough to wish (though he knew it a very long shot) for McGovern to be elected in 1972. He was concerned when he read about the demands that Steinem and other militant feminists were making regarding the Democratic platform, particularly for "abortion on demand" (this was before Roe v. Wade), which, Exley was convinced, would doom McGovern's campaign if included. Exley made it clear that he personally had no problem with the feminist agenda; his concern was with its likely short-term political consequences and the strident way it was being advocated by Steinem and others. He also believed that feminists, and those on the left generally, were hopelessly naive about political reality in America at the time.

When Exley learned that Steinem was coming to the Palm Beach area to give a speech, he succeeded, after much effort, in getting permission to interview her. He recalled that he "had been struck by the likeness of our backgrounds, how much she 'cared' and how little I did. With all my heart I wanted to know why she did, and to understand that it was essential I discover who she was."

Throughout the interview (with the exception of one exchange in which Exley commented on the smallness of her breasts) Steinem remained cordial, but relentlessly on message. When he asked her about Mailer's The Prisoner of Sex, which attacked her friend Kate Millet's Sexual Politics, she said she hadn't read it, but was sure Mailer wouldn't have written it if he knew Millet, who was "really nice." She then laughed, and said she thought The Prisoner of Sex was a perfect title for Mailer's book because "Norman really is a prisoner of sex." Exley's "bewildered" reply was, "Well, I guess we're all a little of that."

Summing up his thoughts on Steinem, Exley writes:

Look Gloria, you want to do something meaningful with your life? Get Freidan and the rest of those meatballs, rent a bus, pack some picnic lunches, go to Wellfleet on the Cape, bow your heads at Edmund Wilson's grave and pay homage to one of the century's great men! Do anything but what you're doing. What I'm imploring of you, dear, dear Gloria, is that you help me see your man McGovern as a man for whom I'd interrupt my love-making. You won't do so until you and his followers become a lot less brassily strident, until I detect in your demeanors at least a tacit admission that, like Ms. Germaine Greer [the one 1970s feminist Exley unreservedly admired], you too are becoming vulnerable and might yet find yourselves the victims of love.
Another minor theme in Pages is one that I find particularly redemptive. Exley was traveling from Florida to Watertown, and had a layover at La Guardia. Naturally, he found a bar. In no mood for conversation, he took a stool at the far end, and ordered a double vodka on the rocks with a splash of tonic. No sooner had he taken a sip than he heard a voice saying "Hello, hello, hello." He responded by moaning, and didn't turn his head. Undeterred, his interlocutor continued with the unpromising words, "You're from Florida! Me too! Just missed my flight to Tampa, gotta wait for another!" Despite Exley's refusal to acknowledge him, the man persisted, explaining that he'd been visiting family in Babylon, Long Island, where he'd grown up, but that, with his parents long dead and his siblings "so caught up in their own lives that he felt a stranger among them," he'd decided to leave early. He'd settled in Florida after World War Two, started what became a successful business, married, raised three children, the youngest of whom, a daughter, was a student at Syracuse University on an exchange program to Florence, Italy. He spotted Exley as a Floridian, "a beach rat with sand in [his] shoes," by his tan and his clothes.

"When you walked through the door," he said, "it hit me like a shovel full of shit in the face that Florida was my home and has been for a quarter of a fucking century."
At this point, Exley, softened by the stranger's having bought him two drinks, turned to him and began talking, at first about Florida, then about other things. They quickly formed a bond. The man showed Exley pictures of his family, and of his waterfront house, with boat docked behind. "Where in Florida?" Exley asked. The man was reluctant to answer, but finally admitted to living in a town with the absurd name Panacea. They both had a good laugh over this, then the man excused himself to catch his flight.

A few days later, Exley heard the news that the powerful Hurricane Agnes had made landfall at a small Florida Gulf Coast town called Panacea. On hearing this, he wrote:

[I] underwent the worst crying jag I'd ever had. It was awesome, an expression of some consummate grief compounded of I know not what and into my mouth came first the words of [a] Nabakovian creation, the pathetically comic emigre Pnin:

"I haf nofing left, nofing, nofing," words I abruptly found myself transposing to "He won't haf nofing left, nofing, nofing."
Ex, you were a piece of work, but one fearfully and wonderfully made. I wish I could have that night at the Head back; wish I could have found the courage to defy Tommy, sit you back down, buy you a drink, and talk.

Update: for more about Exley, see here.