Sunday, August 12, 2007

The tragedy of Fred Exley.

I'm writing this in Massena, which Exley, in Pages From a Cold Island (the subject of my earlier post), called "a far northern and perhaps fantasy village in St. Lawrence County." Being here, I can testify to its being "far northern," at least with respect to New York State, and to its presence within St. Lawrence County. But I can also affirm that it's a very real place with real problems: GM is closing its powertrain plant here, which will mean the loss of many jobs; local folks are hoping that a proposed NASCAR track will boost the economy.

Reaction to my first Exley post was mixed. My wife said, "It was too long, and it turned into a rant at the end." I protested that it wasn't any longer than book reviews in The New Republic; she said, "They're too long, too." Other responses, in the comments below the post and in OTBKB, were more positive. Thus encouraged, and with some inspiration from Keifus, I've decided to write more.

My earlier piece quoted Walter Kirn's observation that, in Exley's view, "[i]n America...a person is either a suffering poet or a cheerful drone." Keifus had this to say in his comment:

It's tempting to separate the world into suffering poets and cheerful drones, isn't it? People glorify the geniuses that drown their muses in booze and sex, as if the ones who force themselves to just suck it up [don't] share a similar burden. (And maybe they do.) People identify suffering with [genius], and imagine (no doubt wrongly) that the suffering implies bigger capabilities...
[K: I've taken the liberty of inserting "don't" in your second sentence and substituting "genius" for the second "suffering" in your last sentence, as that's what I think you intended. Please correct me if I'm wrong.] In Pages, Exley at one point confesses a desire to be a "cheerful drone" of a sort. This came during his description of his interview with Gloria Steinem. After meeting her at the airport, Exley stumbled trying to retreive her luggage from a conveyor belt, then apologized for his awkwardness, saying, "It's just--you know, you know--that I'm so intimidated, you know, being with you and all."
Then if possible I became even more nauseating. I smiled with a weakness verging on illness, batted my big baby brown eyes at her, and gave her a helplessly feeble shrug by way of eliciting her utmost in pity. Gloria looked down at me and with deadly serious and sympathetic earnestness said, "Don't be." And, oh Lord, I score that as the moment I fell head over heels in love with Ms. Gloria Steinem!
As the interview progressed, though, Exley found it hard to break through Steinem's reserve. Trying to get an emotional response, he began asking her about men with whom she had been said to be romantically involved. In each case, she responded that the man in question was a "friend." Finally, Exley asked about Thomas Guinzberg, a publisher whom Exley admired and thought well suited to Steinem. She said she had been with him shortly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and thought "he took [it] too cavalierly." To underscore her assessment, she said, "Tom Guinzberg should have been a sports reporter for the Daily News."

On hearing this, Exley realized that his love for Steinem was doomed:
Ye fucking gads, dear reader, where could Gloria and I go from there? One must understand that the dream of my life--the dream of my fucking life!--was to be a sports reporter for the Daily News! I'd have a lovely and loving wife named Corrine; three sons named Mike, Toby and Scott; two boxers, Killer and Duchess, with bulging muscles under their fawn coats, and black ferocious masks, and like all boxers they'd be big whining slobbering babies who couldn't even sleep when they were denied access to the boys' beds. I'd have a split-level home somewhere on the north shore of the island, say, at Northport; and just at the moment I was up to here with Corrine, the boys, Killer and Duchess, my boss at the sports desk would telephone me and cry, "Hey, Ex, don't forget you got to fly out to the coast and cover the Mets' five-game stand with the Dodgers." And off I'd wing, to stand in the press box, a paper cup of Coors beer in my hand, the klieg lights dissolving the faces of the crowd into one another, cheering like mad for Seaver and the guys; after which, much renewed, I'd fly back to the loving Corrine, Mike, Toby and Scott, Killer and Duchess.
How to square this with what Exley said to his students at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, in which he held up as an exemplar Edmund Wilson alone in his stone house, the embodiment of the discipline and unflagging effort needed to become the kind of writer whose work mattered? I think we can conclude that Exley, like, I suspect, many of us, was torn between conflicting desires: one for greatness, entailing a life of risk, sacrifice and hard work; and one for safety, comfort and small but rewarding pleasures. The tragedy of Exley's short life was that he was unable to muster the discipline to attain the former, at least not on a consistent basis, but perhaps because of a belief that it was inimical to a dream of greatness that he couldn't foresake (being subject to the erroneous belief discussed by Keifus), was also unwilling to exercise the lesser amount of self-control needed to achieve the latter.

Frayfriend JMB says:
I couldn't help but think that [Exley would] be disappointed in Singer Island as it is now--towering Condos and sprawling townhouse communities as far as the eye can see, one public beach, one fishing access park and one County park.
Actually, Exley saw this coming. Near the end of Pages, he tells of a final visit to Singer:
Never do I look inland. In the short time I've been gone two high-rise condominiums have gone or are going up. Looking inland at them reminds me of the doctor's words to the effect that money will not be stayed and that my days on this cold island are numbered. And as I walk I find myself thinking anxiously of the future, of other havens.
But JMB adds:
Then, this past weekend, I sat in with a blues band for a bassist I know who was going to be out of town. It was in a Club of 'questionable merit', connected to a motel that advertised "Hourly, Daily, Weekly Rates" in an area of Singer Island I hadn't seen before.

While sitting on the corner of the stage during a break (while the 'Lingerie Show' was happening and deals of some sort or another were going on outside the front door and the Riviera Beach Police made their 30 minute rounds) I thought that THIS was the closest I would come to what Exley experienced in his time here.
So, perhaps the struggle that goes on in our physical and social environment, one that reflects the inner struggle of Exley and others like him, the struggle between Apollo and Hermes, continues, with neither side, praise be, in sight of victory.


  1. By all means, I appreciate you turning my incoherent ramblings into something approaching sense. Thanks.

    I can get behind the idea of life (and writing) as a battle of opposing anima.

  2. Great post. But I have to admit I see Exley's life as a comedy, not a tragedy. It's hard for me to think that the life of anyone whose work lives on as his does, that people are still reading and quoting and discussing years after his death, could be a tragedy.