USE YOUR MINE-DUH
The following is an excerpt of Clarke’s new novel Exley, narrated by nine-year-old Miller Le Ray. Miller believes his father served in Iraq and is in the VA hospital in a coma; he sets out to find his father's favorite writer, Frederick Exley, the author of A Fan's Notes, in the hopes that Exley will help his father recover.
I got dressed, put A Fan’s Notes in my backpack, ate two bags of mini blueberry muffins and drank a juice box, then walked to school. My first class on Monday was with Mrs. T. In her classroom, above the blackboard, Mrs. T. had tacked up a poster. The poster was broken up into four panels. Each of the panels had a brain. The brains were bright red, like lobsters, and each of the brains had a pair of hands with white gloves on them. In the first panel the brain was wearing safety goggles and pouring the contents of one test tube into another. In the second panel, the brain was reading the dictionary. In the third panel, the brain was holding a sign with word CANCER crossed out. In the fourth panel, the brain was wearing a hard hat; its hands were holding either end of a blueprint, a half-built skyscraper rising behind it. At the top of the poster were the words: USE YOUR MIND. This happened to be Mrs. T.’s favorite expression, too, except she pronounced it “mine-duh” not “mind.” As in, “Miller, use your mine-duh.” Anyway, she taught Advanced Reading, although it was two months into the school year and we mostly hadn’t read anything yet.
We mostly hadn’t read anything yet, except for the stuff we’d written. Mrs. T. called this “free writing.” We “free wrote” every day in class. Although it wasn’t exactly free; Mrs. T would tell us what to write. She called this a “prompt.” The “prompt” was always just one word. Mrs. T. would say, “Mountain.” Or, “Family.” Or, “Rope.” Then she’d look at her watch and say, “Begin.” And then we’d “free write” for fifteen minutes, whatever we wanted as long as it related in some way to the “prompt.” Then Mrs. T. would look at her watch and say, “One minute remains.” One minute later, she’d say, “Stop.” And then one by one we’d read our responses aloud, until the second bell rang. That was Advanced Reading.
I got there just as the first bell rang. I sat in my assigned seat, next to J. with the zipper scar on her right cheek, who sat next to R. who did not want to be called B., who sat next to L. who began each sentence with the word “So,” who sat next to P. who was black. And so on. They were all at least five years older than me, everyone in the class, including Harold, whose assigned seat was at the far end of the room. He waved to me like a lunatic when I came in. But I didn’t wave back. Harold was my only friend. It makes me sad to say that. But I was Harold’s only friend, too. That made it even sadder for him. Because he was five years older than me; he’d had five extra years to make another friend, and hadn’t. But besides Harold, no one else paid much attention to me. I knew from Exley’s book that he hadn’t fit in as a teacher. I wondered if he hadn’t fit in as a student, either. I wondered if he was like me, if he felt like a nine-year-old in a class with a bunch of fourteen-year-olds. I wondered if his classmates treated him like they treated me: like a pet that had one trick: I could read anything, and fast. But that was my only trick. When the older kids realized that, they got bored, and ignored me. I wondered if Exley was like that when he was a kid. I wondered if he was still like that.
Mrs. T. watched me climb into my desk chair, pull out my pencil and a piece of paper, and basically get ready to start “free writing.” But then I was ready and Mrs. T. was still looking at me. “Miller, use your mine-duh,” she finally said. I must have looked at her in a way that told her I thought I was already using it. “Did you forget what we’re doing today?” she asked. When she said that, I looked around and saw everyone had books on their desks, in addition to their pencils and pieces of paper. Then I remembered. This was the week when everyone in school discussed this year’s America on the Same Page book. Like last year, this year’s book was about a war (I guessed that every America on the Same Page book would be about a war until America stopped being in one), except this year the book was about an old war, where people rode horses instead of planes and helicopters and tanks and fired pistols instead of automatic rifles. I say “people,” but it was really about a boy who was too young to fight in the war but joined the Army anyway because his father had fought and died in the war and the boy loved his father and he also loved his father’s horse and gun, which were now the boy’s since his father had died and which the boy took into battle, which he couldn’t stop talking about: he couldn’t stop talking about the bodies and the bullets and the blood, the blood, and it was clear that the boy, or the author, or both, loved the battles and the bodies and the bullets and the blood, too, even though he, or they, kept saying how really terrible it all was.
“I remember now,” I said. I reached into my desk and pulled out my copy of the book. I’d read the book the Friday before, in the nine five-minute periods between when one class ended and the next began.
“Good,” Mrs. T. said. Then she looked at us with big, hopeful eyes. We were probably looking at her the same way. None of us knew what we were supposed to do next. I think America on the Same Page’s idea was that, after reading the book, we wouldn’t be able to look at the world in the same way, and if that were the case, then we wouldn’t be able to talk about it in the same way, either. But how were we supposed to see it? How were we supposed to talk about it? I think we expected Mrs. T. to tell us; I think she expected us to tell her. But we weren’t going to tell her anything. You could see Mrs. T. realized this, too. It was scary, a little, to watch Mrs. T. became less hopeful and more resentful as she realized that maybe America was on the same page, but we definitely were not. Her eyes got smaller and smaller as she tried to figure out what to do. Finally, she opened to page ___ of the book and told us to do the same. We did. Then Mrs. T. put on her glasses (they’d been hanging on a black string around her neck), and read this passage:
It was finally morning. It had stopped raining and the sun had begun to shine and there was a rainbow arcing yellow and blue and bloodred over the battlefield and the steaming bodies of the men and their horses. The ones still alive were moaning in the newdawn; the ones that were dead were dead. The boy realized how awful it was to be dead, because once you were dead that was all there was to be said about you anymore. My father is dead, the boy said. It felt terrible to say that. But I am alive, the boy said, and that felt wonderful. And then the boy realized why there had been wars and why there would always be wars: because it was better to be alive than dead. The boy shouldered his father’s rifle, and whispered, “Go” in his father’s horse’s ear. And they went.
When Mrs. T. was done reading, she took off her glasses, looked at us, and asked, hopefully, “Well, what do you think?”
No one said anything at first. The only sound was Harold tapping his pencil against his forehead. This was how he thought. Everyone else was quietly looking down at their desks, waiting for Harold to say something first. Because Harold always was the one who said something first.
“I didn’t like the part about the rainbow,” Harold finally said.
“You didn’t,” Mrs. T. said. It wasn’t a question. Her voice was so flat you could have slept on it.
“Because you don’t even need rain,” Harold said. “I went to Niagara Falls this summer. There was a rainbow, but no rain. Only water. It should be called a waterbow. That’s what I feel.”
“So whatever,” L. said. “I thought it was pretty great. Especially during the battle and the nasty hand-to-hand stuff.” L. was talking about the part before the part Mrs. T. read, when some of the soldiers ran out of ammunition and so had to try to stab each with their bayonets. L. was a brown belt and loved anything to do with hand-to-hand combat. He turned back a page and read: “’The boy raised his bayonet and for a moment it glistened in the silvermoonlight like some message from God and then the boy thrust it through the chest of a boy not much older than he and then withdrew the bayonet which made a terrible sucking sound as it left the other boy’s body and then the other boy fell to the ground and did not move and would never move.’ Awesome,” L. said.
“By ‘awesome,’ you mean ‘terrible,’” Mrs. T. said.
“Well, yeah,” L. said.
“But why is the horse white?” P. asked. “Why’d the writer have to make that horse be a white horse?”
“Good point, P.,” Mrs. T. said. “It’s problematic.” They had this sort conversation all the time: P. always asked Mrs. T. why something had to be either black or white, and Mrs. T. always answered him carefully, like she was trying hard to give the answer P. wanted so that they could talk about something else, anything else. “Why did the author have to make the horse white? Exactly.”
“But then again,” P said, “it had to suck being that white horse, being sat on all the time by that bloody, gross white boy. White boy sitting on white horse. It’s like sitting on yourself or something.” P. paused for second, trying to work all this out in his head. “It’s like everything white is his own worst enemy. Maybe that’s what the writer was trying to say.”
Mrs. T. nodded and wagged her finger at P. in an excited Yes-I think-you’ve-hit-the-nail-right-on-the-head sort of way. “Exactly,” she said, and then turned to J. and asked, “What about you, J.? What do you think?”
Everyone looked at J. She was fingering her scar, and I could tell she was trying not to cry. J.’s father was in Iraq. Everyone’s father or mother, it seemed, was in Iraq. But J. was the only one trying not to cry about it. I wondered if that meant something had happened to her father the way something had happened to mine. Everyone but me looked away from her; even Mrs. T. pretended to be very interested in something underneath one of her fingernails. “I think it’s bullcrap,” J. finally whispered, so softly that you could pretend you didn’t hear it, which is exactly what Mrs. T. did.
“And you, Miller?” Mrs. T. said. I knew that Mrs. T. didn’t like me. All my other English teachers had liked me, but not Mrs. T. Maybe because on the first day of class, when she’d asked what I’d read over the summer, I’d told her I’d read sixty-three books. She’d put her hands on her hips and pinched her lips and looked at me like I had done something wrong. I had been about to explain that some of those books were pretty short, which wasn’t even true. But L. didn’t give me the chance.
“So,” L. had said, “I find when it comes to reading, quality is more important than quantity.”
“Very good, L,” Mrs. T. had said. “That’s using your mine-duh.”
Anyway, Mrs. T. was waiting for me to say what I felt about the America on the Same Page book. What I felt when I was reading it was what I felt now: I wanted it to be over so I could read something else. I mean, it was fine. It was a book, and so it couldn’t be that bad. But it wasn’t as good as it could have been. At one point in the book, the boy realized that, “The world was killing and death.” Really? I wondered when I read that. Is that all the world is? And if that’s all the world is, then can’t books be about something else? Anything else? Exley’s book had been written during the Vietnam War, and it was about the war, a little, but mostly it was about a bunch of other things. I wondered if this war would have to be over before A Fan’s Notes could be chosen as an America on the Same Page book. Except the way things were going, it seemed like the war would never be over. And if the war were never over, then we’d keep reading books about war and A Fan’s Notes would never be an America on the Same Page book. That seemed terrible to me, more terrible than any of the terrible things that happened in the America on the Same Page book; I couldn’t stand for it to be true. I wondered if my dad couldn’t stand for it to be true, either, and if this was why he joined the Army and went to Iraq in the first place: to help the war end so that people could stop reading the books they were reading or start reading A Fan’s Notes. That made some sense, but not enough sense. Because my dad loved A Fan’s Notes so much that he basically didn’t do anything the book didn’t tell him to, and there was nothing in the book that said he or anyone else should go to war, or do anything else, really, except drink beer and sit on the davenport and read. But my dad went to Iraq anyway. Did that mean he’d decided that the boy in the America on the Same Page book was right, that the world was nothing but killing and death and if that were true then he’d better stop reading A Fan’s Notes and get off the davenport and join the rest of the world? That seemed more terrible than anything else; I couldn’t stand for it to be true, either, just like I couldn’t stand to just sit around and watch my dad in his hospital bed. This was why, of course, I had to find Exley. And this was also why, during this entire time, I was writing a list of Exley’s favorite sayings and expressions. I figured it’d be easier to recognize him if I knew the way he talked by heart. I was so into writing the list that I didn’t notice Mrs. T. had walked up to my desk until she reached down and snatched up the piece of paper. She read it, her face getting redder and redder; I could feel my face getting redder and redder, too, especially when Mrs. T. handed me back the piece of paper and asked me to please stand up and read what I’d written out loud. I really didn’t want to do it. But when Mrs. T. was asking me to do it, she was really telling me. When a teacher tells you to do something, you have to do it, especially if you don’t want to. This is what it means to be educated.
Anyway, here’s what I read:
Exley’s Favorite Words and Sayings
The trip began on a depressing note.
I had incapacitated myself.
You’re a goddamn drunken Irish poet!
How does one get into this business?
Oh, Jesus, Frank!
Oh, Frank, Baby!
Aw, c’mon you goofies!
It is very wearying to be honest.
Nobody but nobody.
I’ve got human life—do you understand that? Human life!—in my hands.
Literary idolaters fall somewhere between blubbering ninnies and acutely frustrated maidens
It was my fate, my destiny, my end, to be a fan.
Life isn’t a football game.
I wanted to risk great happiness but I never got the chance.
There are certain appeals that quite startle and benumb the heart.
After I finished, Harold clapped, like he always did for me when I read something aloud in class. J. gave me a little smile, like she didn’t know exactly what I was talking about but wanted me to keep talking anyway. But no one else clapped or smiled at me or even looked in my direction. They were all looking at each other as though someone—me, or them—had totally misunderstood the assignment.
“So whatever that means,” L. finally said.
“That was completely inappropriate, Miller,” Mrs. T. said. She had gone back to her desk and was holding her gradebook in one hand, her red pen in the other. We got either a minus or a check for our “free write.” I guess that was true for this assignment, too. I could tell by the way Mrs. T’s pen moved that I got a minus. I don’t know about you, but bad grades make me feel like I have to go to the bathroom. They make me feel anxious, and when I get anxious, I’ll say things I shouldn’t.
“All that was from this great book called A Fan’s Notes,” I said. “Written by Frederick Exley.” By the way Mrs. T. reacted, I was pretty sure she’d never heard of the book or the guy who wrote it. She put on her glasses, then cocked her head and looked at me warily, like she knew I was about to say something objectionable. “I was thinking maybe we could read and talk about that book after we’re done talking about this one?”
Mrs. T. opened her mouth, but before any sound came out, J. said, “Maybe we should.”
Mrs. T. closed her mouth. But like every teacher, she had someone to speak for her when she didn’t feel like speaking for herself. “So why would we want to do that?” L. asked. He picked up the America on the Same Page book and read aloud from the back cover, which, like all America on the Same Page books, said, “This America on the Same Page books reminds us what it is to be an American and to live in difficult times.” “So I don’t know how his book…” and here L. pointed at me, “…reminds us of that.”
J. squinted at L. and said, “Thanks, but I don’t think I need to be reminded.” Then she stood up, shouldered her backpack, and stomped out of the room, leaving her copy of the book on her desk behind. Once the door slammed behind J., the room was absolutely quiet—there’s no room as quiet as the classroom a kid has just walked out of without the teacher’s permission—until finally Mrs. T. cleared her throat, so that we looked at her instead of looking at the door. Her pen was in her hand, and she was looking at me over her glasses, like what had happened was my fault, and not J.’s, or L’s, or hers.
“Next time, Miller,” she said, making another minus mark in her book, “use your mine-duh.”
Excerpted from Exley by Brock Clark © 2010. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
Brock Clarke is the author of five books of fiction, most recently the novel Exley, which you should purchase and read immediately. He teaches at Bowdoin College and lives in Portland, Maine.