When news of Frank Gifford's recent death came to me, I, like other literary types (you know, self absorbed, sullen, given to drink and dark clothing) immediately thought of Fred Exley's painful memoir, A Fan's Notes, which is surely one of American letters' great achievements. When asked what the book is "about," the enigmatic richness of the work forces people to answer weakly, "It is about an alcoholic who idolizes Frank Gifford." Which is like saying Macbeth is "A tragic tale about a loving couple's inability to communicate effectively about their mutual desires for the future."
A number of good articles were written about Gifford's "most enthusiastic fan," perhaps the best by Fred Schruers for Grantland, who calls Exley's book a "nostalgia-and-booze-soaked threnody of dysfunction." Exley's portrayal of Gifford is complex, as he is simultaneously envious of him, "I had an overwhelming desire to insult him in some way," and mesmerized by him to the point that they are mystically conjoined:
My yearning became so involved with his desire to escape life's bleak anonymity, that after a time he became my alter ego, that part of me which had its being in the competitive world of men; I came, as incredible as it seems to me now, to believe that I was, in some magical way, an actual instrument of his success.
The two men attended USC together, and it was there that they traded smiles at one of the "campus hamburger joints." Exley's was "hateful," and he was stunned that Gifford returned him one of kindness, almost "an apology," the kind of smile that convinced Exley that Gifford was humble and good, and had not let adulation sully him. That two-minute episode linked Exley and Gifford, as Gifford had given Exley "a gift" and showed him that "it is unmanly to burden others with one's grief."
Unmanly though it might be, the entire novel is suffused with Exley's grief, made all the more pathetic by his mixture of humor and grandiloquent prose. Exley's sadness is the novel's protagonist, more vibrant than Gifford, more real than Exley, who is an inebriated wraith who spends months on the couch: "I wanted to lie hour after hour on a couch, pouring out the dark, secret places of my heart." His grief is so dense that when he tries to bring the novel to a climax and shout at a group of cashmere-clad and vapid young men that "longevity is utterly without redeeming qualities, that one has to live the contributive, the passionate, life," we know that the speaker has never known such a life and his grief has even stolen conviction from his words.
Gifford's power in the novel--a power that reaches out to us still--is that his humble, hard-working persona is the transcendent antidote to the "malaise," the overwhelming grief of modern life that has "bleared and smeared" all hope and consigns us to bitterness. It is Gifford's relentless, almost holy pursuit of victory that lifts Exley from his stupor and summons him to the Polo Grounds as an acolyte to matins. Always near utter despair, Exley finds in Gifford nothing less than a reason to live:
A man can dwell too long with grief, and now, quite suddenly, quite wonderfully, I wanted to cheer again, to break forth from darkness into light, to stand up in that sparsely filled, murderously damp, bitingly cold stadium and scream my head off.
Frank Gifford may be gone now, but for Exley, and perhaps for us, he "came to represent...the realization of life's large promises."