Exleyby Brock Clarke
For young Miller Le Ray, life has become a search. A search for his dad, who may or may not have joined the army and gone to Iraq. A search for a notorious (and, unfortunately, deceased) writer, Frederick Exley, author of the “fictional memoir” A Fan’s Notes, who may hold the key to bringing Miller’s father back. But most of all, his/i>
For young Miller Le Ray, life has become a search. A search for his dad, who may or may not have joined the army and gone to Iraq. A search for a notorious (and, unfortunately, deceased) writer, Frederick Exley, author of the “fictional memoir” A Fan’s Notes, who may hold the key to bringing Miller’s father back. But most of all, his is a search for truth. As Miller says, “Sometimes you have to tell the truth about some of the stuff you’ve done so that people will believe you when you tell them the truth about other stuff you haven’t done.” In Exley as in his previous bestselling novel, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, Brock Clarke takes his reader into a world that is both familiar and disorienting, thought-provoking and thoroughly entertaining. Told by Miller and Dr. Pahnee, both unreliable narrators, it becomes an exploration of the difference between what we believe to be real and what is in fact real.
“Remarkable . . . Clarke’s narrative assurance and unfailingly realistic characters allow him to pull off the literary equivalent of a half-court shot . . . [His] performance here is extraordinary; it’s far and away the best work of his career.” —Michael Schaub, NPR.org
“With humor as black as Exley’s liver, Clarke picks apart the fictions we tell one another—and those we tell ourselves.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Clarke pulls off a nice trick here, playing postmodern games while delivering a cleverly plotted story complete with a surprise twist.” —The Washington Post Book World
The Washington Post
Another literary high-wire performance by a novelist who is establishing himself as a unique voice in contemporary fiction.
This novel shares significant qualities with its predecessor(An Arsonist's Guide to Writer's Homes in New England,2007), which provided a critical breakthrough for Clarke. Both have protagonists who are good-hearted, well-intentioned and self-delusional, thus as unreliable as they are likable. And both have a metafictional, book-about-books quality. In this case, as the title suggests, the creative springboard is Frederick Exley'sA Fan's Notes, a memoirist novel that itself confuses the real with the imagined. Here is what the reader knows for sure: Nine-year-old Miller lives in Watertown, N.Y., with his mother, a lawyer specializing in domestic-abuse cases among the military. His father, whom Miller loves and who left the family, is obsessed with Exley's novel, so much so that its setting brought him to Watertown. Miller is so precociously intelligent that he has leapfrogged to the eighth grade. He narrates most of the novel. He also sees a therapist to help him deal with the absence of his father and his inability to distinguish the actual from the imaginary (a coping mechanism). The therapist develops some identity issues of his own. Miller's father may have been a professor, an alcoholic, an adulterer, or all or none of them. Miller is convinced that his father enlisted to fight in the war in Iraq, and has returned from combat in critical condition to the local VA hospital. He also believes that if he can find Exley he will save his father's life. Yet Exley in real life is dead, according to a biography by Jonathan Yardley (the book critic who also emerges as a character here). "Sometimes you have to tell the truth about what you've done so that people will believe you when you tell them the truth about other stuff you haven't done," says Miller, who is in for as many surprises as the reader.
A seriously playful novel about the interweave of literature and life.
- Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
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Read an Excerpt
By Brock Clarke
ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILLCopyright © 2010 Brock Clarke
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAnything Can Be a Beginning As Long As You Call It One
My name is Miller Le Ray. I am ten years old. I was nine years old when my dad went to Iraq, and I was still nine years old eight months later when I found out he was back from Iraq and in the VA hospital. The day I went to see him in the VA hospital was the day I started trying to find Exley. Exley was the guy who wrote my dad's favorite book, A Fan's Notes. Mother calls the Exley I eventually found a Man Who Just Said He Was Exley. But I just call him Exley. Because this is one of the things I learned on my own: you need to say things simply, especially when they're complicated.
So why don't I begin there: the day I went to see my dad in the VA hospital. Exley's book begins toward the end, but he calls it a beginning anyway. Because this is one of the things I learned from Exley: anything can be a beginning as long as you call it one.
I woke up on Sunday, the eleventh of November, 200-, knowing that my dad had come home from the war. I knew this without anyone having to tell me; I knew it in my bones, the way you always know the most important things. I jumped out of bed and ran into my parents' room. The bed was unmade and there was no one in it. The room was as empty as the bed. I checked the upstairs bathroom. The faucet was dripping, like always. Before my dad went away, Mother sometimes joked that he was the kind of guy who would join up and go to Iraq just so he wouldn't have to fix the faucet. After he left, she stopped making the joke. But anyway, the bathroom was also empty. I went back to his bedroom, in case my dad had snuck in there while I was in the other rooms looking for him. But it was empty, too. Then I heard a sound coming from downstairs. It was Mother, crying. Mother never cried. The only other time I had ever heard her cry was when my dad went to Iraq in the first place. This was, of course, how I knew my dad was home: I'd heard Mother crying without knowing I'd heard her crying. When we say we know something in our bones, we mean we don't know yet how we know what we know. This is what we mean by "bones."
So I ran downstairs and followed the sound of Mother's crying, which led me to the bathroom. The door was closed. I went to knock, then almost didn't. Because it was hard to have an intelligent conversation with Mother when she was in the bathroom. I knew, from experience, that if I knocked on the bathroom door, this is how the conversation would go.
"I'm in the bathroom," Mother would say.
"What are you doing in there?" I would ask.
"Miller, I am in the bathroom," Mother would say.
"I know," I would say. "But what are you doing in there?"
But this time was different. It was different because Mother had been crying and I wanted to know why, and my dad was back from the war and I wanted to know where he was. I knocked on the door, and Mother stopped crying immediately.
"I'm in the bathroom," she said.
"Why were you crying?" I asked. And then, before she could answer, I asked, "Where's my dad?" Which started her crying again.
I took a step back from the door and thought about what I knew. I absolutely knew my dad was back from Iraq. Except he wasn't in our house, which he would have been if he'd been able to be in our house. Mother was crying, which she'd never done, as far as I knew, except for that once. All of this was going on in Watertown, New York. Fort Drum is in Watertown. It's an army fort. I go to school with dozens of kids whose dads and mothers are based at Fort Drum before and after going to Iraq. I knew from them that when their parents left Iraq for Watertown, they went to one of three places. My dad wasn't in the house - my eyes told me that. My dad wasn't in the base morgue, either - my bones told me that, just as surely as they'd told me my dad was back from Iraq in the first place. That left only one place where he could be: the VA hospital.
I went upstairs, got dressed, brushed my teeth, walked back downstairs, got Exley's book from my dad's study, put it in my backpack, shouldered the backpack, then took a few steps toward the bathroom. The door to the bathroom was still closed, and I could hear Mother still crying behind it, quieter now, but steady, like an all-day rain. Please don't cry, I wanted to say to her. I'm going to go get my dad and bring him home and everything will be all right. So please don't cry. But I didn't think I could say anything like that and not feel ridiculous afterward. I thought of my dad, of what he might say to Mother under these kinds of circumstances. Probably something not exactly comforting, probably something beginning with the phrase "For Christ's sake." I didn't think I could, or should, say that, either. So instead of saying either of those two things, I said, "I'm going to ride my bike," although possibly not loud enough to be heard over her crying. In any case, Mother kept crying. And so I walked into the garage, where I kept my Huffy, climbed on, and pedaled to the VA hospital.
Excerpted from Exley by Brock Clarke Copyright © 2010 by Brock Clarke. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Brock Clarke is the author of An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, which was a national bestseller and has appeared in a dozen foreign editions, and three other books. He lives in Portland, Maine, and teaches creative writing at Bowdoin College. Find him online at www.brockclarke.com.
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Reading Exley was an exercise in frustration. There were few moments when i could say that I liked what I was reading. I felt like a hamster on a wheel as the boy kept repeating his behavior. The character of the therapist was just weird- really. Lusting after the kid's mother, breaking into their home- none of this interested me. I cannot recommend this book to anyone who has better things to do.
You may not find yourself immediately hooked into the outrageous premise of "Exley," if you've forgotten the almost universal praise that greeted Frederick Exley's 1968 fictionalized memoir "A Fan's Notes". But the work was beloved by critics and readers alike and seemed the introduction to a major American writer. Here, over thirty years later, Brock Clarke has fashioned an intriguing story of a teenager from "Note's" Watertown whose main connection to his abandoned father is Exley's book. Reality keeps shifting, and keeps the reader on his toes, before a satisfying ending draws together the threads. There are probably a few too many ways that the teenager could have confirmed Exley's condition in today's easy access to information, but part of the joy in reading "Exley" is watching the ways Brock Clarke digs out his wildly dysfunctional family (and their equally dysfunctional therapist) from their lies and fantasies. And if it leads you to reread "A Fan's Notes," so much the better. Recommended.
After you finish reading Exley, by Brock Clarke, you may need to take a few moments to catch your breath. You may not sleep well, and that's certainly not because of anything horrific or scary in the book. This book, quite simply, messes with your mind. First, the characters are wildly created and completely unpredictable. It starts with Miller, or M-, who is a child prodigy on a quest to find his father who left the family suddenly and without explanation. He's a weird little kid, but likable, and you can't help but feel sympathy for him as he misses his dad. The only explanation he can find is that his father must have left for Iraq (they live in an army base town), and this explanation doesn't sit well with his mother. She arranges for him to meet with a psychiatrist to discuss Miller's 'wild imagination'. Miller and the doctor form a tentative relationship, with Miller's explanations sounding more reasonable than anyone else's. The key to all of this, to separate it from any number of books about dysfunctional families, is Exley. Frederick Exley, is the author of A Fan's Notes, the favorite book of Miller's father. His father's so tied to Exley's books that when he gets a phone call on 9/11 to tell him to turn on the television, he can't be bothered. He's too busy re-reading the book. The book becomes Miller's only connection to his dad. He carries on his father's obsession and turns to Exley (or at least anything even remotely related to Exley or his writing) to bring him back. With book in hand, he searches all over Watertown to find a connection and an explanation. In between searching, he teaches his father's English class at the Junior College, meets a mysterious young woman who may have known his father, and visits the VA hospital searching for clues. This is one busy kid. The psychiatrist, Dr. Pahnee, isn't exactly the appropriate choice for a mental health professional for Miller. This makes him perfect in terms of the book. Because while Dr. Pahnee utters the traditional psychobabble, he's also not above prowling Miller's house when no one's home, and following him around to verify if any of Miller's claims could possibly be true (both of them on bikes). He's not above hitting on Miller's mother, and as several of the chapters are written as his patient notes, we see just how far out of the range of normal he is. He is given to uttering repetitive phrases-repetitive and, indeed, annoying. (Just like that sentence!) Quirky doesn't even begin to describe him. Clarke writes the characters in a brisk way that creates instant visuals: he describes the father "like a bear with hurt feelings." The mother is an uptight lawyer whose emotions are best deciphered by the position of her hands on her hips, and who is so rigid that her business suits are assigned a certain day to be worn. Everyone else that Miller meets fits the same non-mold, and the effect is dizzying. Despite the craziness, there is a genuine thread of humanity that aims to understand how much (or how little) of what we want to believe relates to what actually is true. It also toys with the idea of imagination as a therapeutic process, a means to adjust to and possibly accept changing circumstances. The book reminded me a bit of Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which has a child protagonist on a similar journey. Yet Clarke's novel has a more satisfying ending, and doesn't fold up quite as neatly.