Four decades before it became customary to Google oneself, Fred Exley lamented, “It was my destiny — unlike that of my father, whose fate it was to hear the roar of the crowd — to sit in the stands with most men and acclaim others. It was my fate, my destiny, my end, to be a fan.”
Professional sports are the ultimate domain of the insider. Fame, fortune and popularity beyond the wildest dreams await the supremely talented athlete willing to follow society’s conventions, capitulate to authority and sublimate the ego to the greater goals of the team. Once a merely functional high school football player, Exley was the ultimate outsider, a dissolute soul wracked by alcoholism, depression and inescapable feelings of inadequacy in the shadow of a father whose name was “whispered in reverential tones.” His saving grace is this self-styled “fictional memoir,” a one-hit miracle marked by a tortured honesty and candor so unflinching that it left notorious gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson in awe.
In the annals of American literature, Exley’s description of sport ranks at the top, rivaling Bernard Malumud’s in “The Natural” and Richard Ford’s in “The Sportswriter.” Late New York Giants star Frank Gifford plays the hero to Exley’s anti-hero, as the author tackles weighty, important themes. “No one has written more revealingly than he about how Americans live vicariously through the exploits of the ‘heroes’ of sport,” book critic Jonathan Yardley once noted, “or about how capriciously ‘fame’ can be awarded or withheld.”
Exley produced an underground cult classic, one that has turned failed jocks of a literary bent into rabid proselytizers, continually shoving dog-eared, annotated copies of “A Fan’s Notes” into the hands of fellow outsiders.
“Then I would say, “How the Giants going to make out Sunday, Leo?” Having known the question would come, Leo would smile. The nightmare of the week was over. Why did football bring me so to life? I can’t say precisely. Part of it was my feeling that football was an island of directness in a world of circumspection. In football a man was asked to do a difficult and brutal job, and he either did it or got out. There was nothing rhetorical or vague about it: I chose to believe that it was not unlike the jobs which all men, in some sunnier past, had been called upon to do. It smacked of something old, something traditional, something unclouded by legerdemain and subterfuge. It had that kind of power over me, drawing me back with the force of something known, scarcely remembered, elusive as integrity — perhaps it was no more than the force of forgotten childhood. Whatever it was, I gave myself up to the Giants utterly. The recompense I gained was the feeling of being alive.
The choice of The Parrot as a place to view the games was not an arbitrary one. There had been a time, some two or three seasons before, when I had been able to bounce up and down — shouting, “Oh, God, he did it! Gifford did it! He caught the goddam thing!” — in any place, in any company, and feel neither timidity nor embarrassment. But as one year had engulfed another, and still another, each bringing with it its myriad defeats, as I had come to find myself relying on the Giants as a life-giving, an exalting force, I found myself unable to relax in the company of “unbelievers,” in the company of those who did not take their football earnestly or who thought my team something less than the One God. At those times, in those alien places, I felt like a holy man attempting to genuflect amidst a gang of drunken, babbling, mocking heretics.”