Flashes of Brilliance

Frederick Exley

I’m reading Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes thanks to the generosity and enthusiasm of my friend/colleague Jim Barns.  The novel is a barely fictionalized version of the author’s manic, tragicomic obsession with the New York Giants.  There is a harrowing, unflinching power within the ‘warts and all’ characterization and brutal self-examination Exley performs upon his hapless alter ego that makes this book hard to put down; and even harder to pin down.  Yet, there is also something uniquely American about the tone and subject matter.  Exley (the narrator’s actual name) is a lonely, self-inflicted outsider trapped just beyond the hallowed halls of social acceptance and success, both personal and professional, in small-town America, in this instance Watertown, New York.  His only true solace and sustenance is found in normally dark, suddenly sunlit bars on fall Sundays when Big Blue takes the field.  This type of character has been attempted many times in the annals of American letters, some actually written, but few have such morbid, mordantly three-dimensional flesh and blood staying power.

Exley never again published anything with the same level of brilliant intensity found in A Fan’s Notes.  To many this put him squarely in the “one hit wonder” category, or as Walter Kirn puts it in his excellent dual review of A Fan’s Notes and Jonathan Yardley’s Misfit: The Strange Life of Frederick Exley, a poignant example of “a writer who never overcame his breakthrough.”

American literature and library shelves are littered with such one-off flares of undeniable brilliance.  Another book that came immediately to mind when I started Exley’s book, and after I’d read Kirn’s piece, was John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. This book was also recommended to me by a friend.  It is truly amazing the word-of-mouth, hand-sold way books like these are passed on to people and thus perpetuated.  It’s like being initiated into a secret society of off-beat, under the radar literary gems curated by adventurous readers seeking to change the way you look at novels, and even the act of reading itself.

A Confederacy of Dunces takes place in New Orleans and depicts the adventures of the unforgettable Ignatius J. Reilly.   Some critics consider this work to be one of the most authentic and accurate portrayals of the Crescent City in literature and the strength and enduring resonance of the work was confirmed in 1981 when Mr. Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  The story behind the novel’s publication is almost as unique as the work itself: Toole’s mother presented a smeared, beat-up copy of the manuscript to Walker Percy after her son had committed suicide, demanding that he get it published!

Thankfully he did.

Feel free to share with me any of your favorite examples of unique, “one-hit wonder” books and/or authors.


(picture courtesy of americanlegends.com)

One comment

  1. Mr. Seese, I understand exactly what you mean by “a secret society” of readers. Not only do our friends press books upon us but sometimes books themselves in some mystical fashion seek us out by constantly reappearing at corners and intersections of our life’s highway. Barry Lewis Chad, Pennsylvania

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