Exley’s Notes from Jefferson Boulevard

It should surprise no one to learn that Exley’s lifelong delusions germinated not in the somber countryside and grey cities of the East, but at Exley’s place of undergraduate learning?the University of Southern California in the downtown heart of the city that manufactures fantasy. -from Great God Pan #12, 1998
“Other men might inherit from their fathers a head for figures, a gold pocket watch all encrusted with the oxidized green of age, or an eternally astonished expression; from mine I acquired this need to have my name whispered in reverential tones.”

From this need sprang, for Frederick Exley, a life full of fantasy and delusion lowlighted by a long stay in the Avalon Valley State Hospital for the mentally insane and a booze-induced seizure that landed him flat on back in his hometown emergency room, begging the nurse to tell his mother he loved her.

“There was nothing grossly unusual in the fantasy,” he writes in A Fan’s Notes. “It was a projected compendium of all that was most truly vulgar in America: I was rich, famous, and powerful, so incredibly handsome that within moments of my entrance stunning women went spread-eagle before me.”

Anyone who’s read his books knows that Fred Exley is not a Californian. Born in Watertown, New York, his autobiographical novel is set in almost entirely in that state: at the Polo Grounds where he maniacally hollers for the New York Giants, on his mother’s davenport at home, at his spinster aunt’s house in Westchester, in the upstate loony bin and at Louis’ tavern in Greenwich Village.

But it should surprise no one to learn that Exley’s lifelong delusions germinated not in the somber countryside and grey cities of the East, but at Exley’s place of undergraduate learning?the University of Southern California in the downtown heart of the city that manufactures fantasy.

“I accepted the myth of California the Benevolent and believed that beneath her warm skies I would find surcease from my pain in the person of some lithe, fresh-skinned, and incredibly lovely blond coed.”

So the City of Angels birthed two of the dreams that would torment Exley for the rest of his years: first, that he would eventually encounter the lovely blond coed, and second, that he would one day be as famous, manly, and successful as his classmate, future pro-footballer and philandering TV commentator, Frank Gifford.

The girl in Exley’s fantasy is well-drawn. “She was to have a degree from Vassar (I was willing to go as low as a B.A. in Fine Arts from Wellesley); she must have bobbed, blond hair, green eyes, and golden, vibrant legs; to offset my increasing “melancholy,” I determined that she must be a gregarious girl, spontaneously witty, and capable of thunderous laughter; still apart from this delightfully fresh facade, I conceived her adept in the most “enlightened” sexual acts. She was to allay the ache in my heart, and when the ache disappeared and contentment reigned, I would get down to the distressing chore of acquiring Genius. . . I saw myself lolling on a sateen divan, spitting grape seeds like Spencer Tracy’s Mr. Hyde, and dictating my immortal words to my Vassar blonde, taking five minutes out now and then for an orgy.”

Gifford, who’s presence on the USC campus Exley likens to that of the Pope in the Vatican, would in later years become the object of an obsession so fervent that today we would certainly label the bearer of such fanaticism a stalker.

“I cheered for him with such inordinate enthusiasm,” writes Exley of the Polo Grounds era that precipitated his slip into madness, “that after a time he became my alter ego . . . I came to believe that I was, in some magical way, an actual instrument of his success. Each time I heard the roar of the crowd, it roared in my ears as much for me as him . . . Frank Gifford, more than any single person, sustained for me the illusion that fame was possible.”

But in college in California, this idolatry was hardly nascent. “My crowd?the literati?never once to my knowledge mentioned [Gifford] because his being permitted to exist where we were apprenticing ourselves for Nobel Prizes would have detracted from our environment.”

Exley’s literati consisted of USC outcasts: “poker and horse players, drunken veterans, petulant instructors, talentless poets, an occasional Negro, all the patrons of an off-campus bistro on Jefferson Boulevard.” Unable to penetrate the world of fame and success and Frank Gifford and the “so near and yet so far away pastel nightmare of honey-blond, pink-lipped, golden-legged, lemon-sweatered girls”?in short, unable to make a whole-hearted lunge at the American Dream?they soothed themselves otherwise with booze and dreams.

Just before graduation, Exley and a few friends spent a day at the bar, fabricating a resume for “a new Frederick Exley capable of storming the high and indifferent towers of Manhattan.” This new creation was not a drunk or a nutcase, but a real winner: vice-president of his fraternity house, honor student, football player, literary critic for the school paper and so on. He was tailor-suited to slip neatly into America, the same America that would be the real Exley’s hobgoblin for a decade or more, the one for which, upon admission to the Avalon Valley mental hospital, he would clench his fists and rail murderously: “I wanted to destroy that America in pursuit of its own loveliness, kill it for its utter and unending lack of imagination.”

But that was later. From inside the Jefferson Boulevard drinking establishment in 1953, as Exley and companions cut a new Exley from whole cloth?”a creation that severely indicted either us or the world that we were seeking to impress”?the weather was sunny and the future rosy.