Football season brings to mind Frederick Exley's "A Fan's Notes," which holds a magnetic power over members of its club like me. A "fictionalized memoir" published in 1968, the book delves into American success, failure, fame, sports obsession, father and sons, husbands and wifes, alcoholism, mental illness, writing. Reading the journey of the hugely flawed, hugely talented character Frederick Exley, a reader thinks of Addison DeWitt's comment to Margo Channing in "All About Eve": "You're maudlin and full of self-pity. You're magnificent."
The book's basic premise is that the failed loser Frederick Exley vicariously lives through the fame and glory of football star Frank Gifford, in his years at USC and then with the New York Giants. The book takes place in the early '60s, when pro football first gained prominence in the sports universe. The character enjoys some success in corporate America, but can never hold on to his good fortune, at last succumbing to alcoholism and mental illness. Exley can't reconcile America's demands on the American male: his father's code requires that he be tough, hard-working, athletic, but he's also a sensitive lover of words and art. Football, especially witnessing Gifford's grace, is an arena where these contrary impulses are resolved. He anticipated our growing "fandom," in which young Americans struggled to find permanent success among declining economic prospects and alleviated their disappointment through sports obsession.
Along the way, Exley encounters a number of American types, a rich gallery of characters. One is a polished New York ad man right out of "Mad Men." Another is a congenital alcoholic from the Irish working class. In his dizzying narrative, we encounter all facets of American society, from corporate offices to mental institutions, bars, classrooms, stadiums. Scenes of tenderness, elegiac beauty and remorse alternate with those of violence, self-hatred, lying and cowardice. The book is full of disgust and regret, but the writing is so beautiful and true that those who love it cannot turn away.
His passage about going to old Yankee stadium and witnessing Chuck Bednarik's vicious hit on Gifford is one of the best pieces of writing on sports ever done. When I ever get around to putting together my sports anthology, it will be there, along with Red Smith, W.C. Heinz and others.
Again this year, as I watch the Giants in their vintage blue and white uniforms, or see a young back break free into the light of an autumn afternoon, I'll raise a glass to Ex.