Brock Clarke has been one of my favorite authors since college, when I read a short story of his in a creative writing course and email interviewed him about his process for an assignment. His novel Exley does not disappoint.
Written in the style of journaling, two main characters tell their sides of the story. But, it’s clear from the start that both have an agenda and distrust in the other, so as they alternate, neither can be fully believed and it’s hard to deduce what parts are truthful or even if have some kernel of truth. That is the beauty, and frustration, of this novel. Nine year old Miller claims his father left to join up and serve as a soldier in the Iraq war. However, his Mother says his father didn’t enlist but instead just left them. So Miller (a.k.a. M.) sees a mental health professional to help him get better and dissolve his illusion but both have very different perspectives.
Most of what I love about Clarke’s writing style is its insightful ease. And with this storyline, it truly takes off and sprints towards the final pages with an eventful, perplexing, and harrowing journey along the way. While the writing is very readable, Clarke incorporates gems of knowledge and turns-of-phrases that cause the reader to pause to revel in its wisdom and creativity:
I confess this is an unforeseen–unforeseen and, indeed, I did not foresee it–by-product of journaling: in writing down the facts of one’s feelings, one might leave out facts, and one might also try to convince oneself that one’s fantasy is, in fact, one’s fact, or at least a fact among other facts, other facts that are, in fact, facts, making it most difficult to tell the fact from the fantasy. I tremble to think what will happen to M.’s mental health if he succeeds in confusing fact and fantasy. I trust these notes accurately depict the severity of that tremble.
M. Lives in a world all of his own and is still an imaginative kid which creeps into his reality. Not liking Dr. ____ (as M. Refers to him), M. instead calls him Dr. Pahnee after a book character and asks that he speaks and treat him in a certain way and the Dr. plays along. As it becomes apparent to the Dr. that M. might not be wrong about a lot of things, he realizes that his Mother is holding back valuable information that would actually help M., so the Dr. goes to extraordinary lengths to set things right despite their convolution and difficulty.
The premise of the story revolves around Fred Exley’s book A Fan’s Notes, beloved by M.’s dad and then M. himself. Well, idolized is more accurate. Once M. discovers that his dad is back and in the local V.A. not doing well, he believes that finding and bring Exley to his dad will cure him so that he came return home and life can resume as normal for their family. Seeking out Exley is harder than M. thought and the Dr. bonds much more with his patient M. than typical as he grows to care for the boy, albeit while pining for M.’s Mother. Clarke used real-life Exley, his book, and Watertown, NY as the inspiration for this novel, along with biographer Jonathan Yardley and his book Misfit: The Strange Life of Frederick Exley adds a much more compelling level to this novel. Personally, I didn’t realize the real-life inspiration until the end in the acknowledgments. According to Clarke, this novel wouldn’t have been written it he hadn’t read Exley’s book. This make me enjoy the book all the more and be in awe of Clarke for yet another wonderful reason. Plus, Exley and Yardley are so fantastical and ridiculous that it amazes me that they are real–how fabulously larger-than-life! The phrase stranger than fiction certainly applies to them.
While it was sad to finish such an odd yet fun novel way too soon, I do have Brock Clarke’s latest novel on my bookshelf in paperback waiting for me… He always writes the strangest yet most compelling characters and stories, so I can’t wait to try out another book by him. Although he’s not currently as big of a name as some fiction writers, I wouldn’t be surprised if he becomes more well known in the near future.
Recommended?: Yes, most definitely for everyone. Other than the loads of swearing (usually Jesus H. Keeriiisst!), the novel is PG-13 (smoking cigarettes, drinking and drunkenness, and occasional misogyny). The book focuses on M. and the Dr.’s individual perspectives and creates its own sense of tension and mystery that propels the reader onward to discover as much of the truth as possible. Overall, it’s a fun, quick read, yet is unlike other novels in the way it is written and the obvious fact upfront that someone, or all of them to some degree, is lying since all of their stories don’t line up. It’s more of a fast summer mystery/coming-of-age novel than a beach read, but not too far off since it’s so enjoyable.