“This is one of the things I learned on my own,” 10-year-old Miller Le Ray declares on Exley’s first page: “you need to say things simply, especially when they’re complicated.” That’s a reasonable epiphany for someone so young, but that kind of pseudo-profound banality (something most people learn by the time they’re old enough to be interested in reading, say, a 300-page homage to Frederick Exley) also frequently came tumbling out of the much older narrator of Brock Clarke’s last book, An Arsonist’s Guide To Writers’ Homes In New England. Clarke has a serious problem with blankly stated aphorisms so bald that they’re pretentiously spare and self-congratulatory; justifying himself behind a 10-year-old’s voice is a bad idea. And as in his previous novel, oddly specific literary targets mesh schizophrenically with essentially downbeat, non-comic fare.
Exley is nonetheless a real leap forward, mainly because Clarke plays with two unstable narrators who give his search for generic emotional truth some good old-fashioned plot juice. Miller thinks his dad is in Iraq, his mom thinks he’s making it up, and the therapist (the other narrator, with a whole mess of his own problems) doesn’t know what to do, given that he’s hopelessly in love with Miller’s mom. Exactly what Miller is making up and what’s real doesn’t become clear until the final pages, which keep things moving past all the bland life truths.
Miller is obsessed with Frederick Exley, the cultishly beloved author of A Fan’s Notes. (Acolytes take note: Exley’s other two books are merely dismissed in passing, which is a shame.) Since the only book his missing dad read for 15 years was Fan’s Notes, Miller starts trying to find Exley. In the meantime, he makes hilariously accurate lists like “Exley’s Favorite Words and Sayings” (“Jesus H. Keeriiisst”; “I had incapacitated myself”; “Life isn’t all a goddamn football game!”; “Fuck you”). Setting the novel in Exley’s beloved Watertown—now well beyond down and out, home to Fort Drum and a clearinghouse for soldiers going on tour—gives Clarke a chance to rewrite the city less sentimentally, drawing a bleak portrait of an army town way past its prime.
The book spends a lot of time mocking psychiatrists (the good doctor is barely sane, and spends much time pompously demanding to be referred to as a “mental health professional”), and the big revelations are underwhelming and not worth all the prose’s groaning. Still, Clarke gets the big stuff right: Exley is nothing if he’s just bile without heart, and Clarke pays fit tribute to him with a generous portion of both. Whether the small snippets provided will whet the appetites of those unfamiliar with Exley is another question, but for his cultists, this is definitely worth a look.