Exley: A Novel
Reviewed by Cindy Widner, Fri., Nov. 19, 2010
Exley: A Novelby Brock Clarke
Algonquin Books, 320 pp., $24.95
Should someone choose to place it on their syllabi, Exley: A Novel would not leave seminar students wanting. It is, after all, a novel about an 8-year-old boy (Miller) looking for the author (Frederick Exley) of a semiclassic novel (1968's A Fan's Notes – "A Fictional Memoir," as it were) with which his absent – or possibly comatose but otherwise present – father is obsessed, set in the same town as the earlier novel (Watertown, New York). It's a story related alternately by Miller, his goofy psychiatrist, and quotations from Exley's, and his biographer's, books. It is, in other words, a funhouse of unreliable narration, metatextual reference, and observations on the anxiety of influence.
It is also possible to lay off the theory (unless that's how you get your synaptic kicks) and enjoy Exley as what it is primarily: a story about growing up. The kid-detective plot moves the reader along, as does Clarke's prose, which is the kind you enjoy because it makes itself invisible; in quick order, the reader is rooting for Miller and feeling tender toward everyone else, even the ridiculous shrink. Like Exley – very specifically like Exley – Clarke wades into the working-class milieu of Watertown, with its dive bars, greasy spoons, and residents too exhausted to put up much of a fight over eccentric behavior – a military town now enduring an endless streak of bad times, full of the wounded, the dead, and the drunk.
Clarke sets his story in a time that is roughly the present save that it is bereft of laptops or cell phones but full of phone books, echoing the tone of Exley's time, when encounters were face-to-face in cluttered places and boys could ride their bikes everywhere with no undue panic on the part of their mothers. At times Exley's gambits fail, as when characters speak primarily in direct quotation from their real-life counterparts' written work, for instance, or when the inclusion of one too many father figures results in a stark scene that floats off unmoored.
These are stumbles in a book that charms without seeming to try, stretching the emotional bounds of Exley and his century while embracing the specifics of his time and his art. If Clarke's goal is to prompt more people to read or reread the novel that inspired his, he's certainly run up the score in Exley's favor.