ONE-HIT WONDER
David L. Ulin

I've always had a thing for one-book authors, the type who produce a single iconic work, then never finish anything of value again. If I look at my bookshelves, I can see the evidence of their oddly truncated careers, shining like beacons of arrested (or used up) potential, suggesting that sometimes longevity is overrated, that honor may accrue from being the exact right sort of flash-in-the-pan. There’s Hubert Selby, Jr., whose 1964 work of fiction Last Exit to Brooklyn—perhaps the most visceral evocation of urban life ever set down in the English language—seems only more remarkable in light of his six subsequent books, which read like ghostly shadows, afterimages of an exploded star. Or Malcolm Lowry, who never completed another novel after Under the Volcano, a searing portrait of one man’s disintegration, a disintegration that, not coincidentally, reflects the author’s own.

In 1988, while honeymooning in western Canada, I dragged my wife, Rae, to the beach at Dollarton, British Columbia, where Lowry had lived for many years in a squatter’s shack, trying to write his way out of despair and self-doubt even as he slowly drank himself to death. To this day, I have a cluster of polished black stones from that beach sitting in a circle on my desk, as a kind of talisman, a reminder that sometimes all you need is one burst of brilliance to illuminate an otherwise ordinary (or even catastrophic) life.

Of course, when it comes to one-book authors, none resonates for me as deeply as Frederick Exley, whose "fictional memoir" A Fan’s Notes came out in 1968. As for why this is … well, Exley was a particularly unlikely literary hero, the most implausible writer in the bunch. Born on March 28, 1929 in Watertown, New York, he was an alcoholic who spent much of his life as an unregenerate freeloader, writing sporadically when at all. His relationships, including two brief marriages, were disastrous, and for many years he didn’t even have an apartment, but rotated among friends and relations as a semi-permanent guest.

Exley’s inability to function as an adult extended to his inner self, which relied on several external figures—including his father, Earl, and the critic Edmund Wilson—to provide some semblance of definition, as if through their successes, his own lack of accomplishment might be redeemed. Of these personalities, none was more significant than Frank Gifford, whom Exley first encountered at the University of Southern California in the early 1950s, and became obsessed with after moving to Manhattan, where Gifford was a star football player for the New York Giants. As Exley explains in A Fan’s Notes, "I cheered for him with such inordinate enthusiasm … that after a time he became my alter ego, that part of me which had its being in the competitive world of men … Each time I heard the roar of the crowd, it roared in my ears as much for me as for him."

In many ways, A Fan’s Notes represents Exley’s one great moment of triumph, a rigorously reflective piece of autobiographical writing that eclipses the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, using the author’s imagined relationship with Gifford as a fulcrum from which to examine "that long malaise, my life." The book received the William Faulkner Award for best first novel, and was a finalist for the National Book Award. That A Fan’s Notes exists at all is nothing short of astonishing, for while Exley spent years fantasizing about being a writer, he had done little of substance before it came out.

Yet equally remarkable is the depth to which Exley reveals himself, baring his inadequacies until, beneath the refining filter of revelation, they are transformed. It’s ironic that a book about failure would represent, for its author, the pinnacle of success, as it is that in his explication of fanhood, Exley would turn the spotlight, finally, towards himself. Perhaps the greatest irony, though, is that, ultimately, A Fan’s Notes did little to alter Exley’s life. In the years after its appearance, he taught briefly at the Iowa Writers Workshop, and wrote two additional "novels," Pages from a Cold Island and Last Notes from Home, that complete the trilogy A Fan’s Notes begins. Still, he remained a drunk and a layabout, and even before he died of a stroke on June 17, 1992, he had been largely forgotten, along with his work.

 

You can read One-Hit Wonder in its entirety in the premiere issue of Swink.

David L. Ulin was born and raised in Manhattan, but has lived in Los Angeles since 1991. He is the author of Cape Cod Blues (Red Dust) and the editor of two anthologies of Southern California literature: Another City: Writing from Los Angeles (City Lights), and Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology (Library of America). His essays and criticism have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, GQ, The New York Times Book Review, LA Weekly, the Los Angeles Times, and on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. His new book, The Myth of Solid Ground, an inquiry into earthquake culture, will be published by Viking Penguin in 2004.

 

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