Brock Clarke soaks up literature the way the average person soaks up reality TV or high-fructose corn syrup. In Exley, he uses the 1968 semi-fictional memoir A Fan’s Notes – by acclaimed US novelist Frederick Exley – as a mythical, grail-like object that has his characters by turns bothered and bewitched.
As the narrative opens, Miller Le Ray – a 10-year-old prodigy burdened by a problematic relationship with reality – explains that his father has just returned from a tour in Iraq and is now in a nearby VA hospital. For the next 300 or so pages, we are forced to question that assertion, as well as just about every other actuality the author, through Miller, presents us with. Miller comes to believe that the cult novel and, in fact, Exley himself are key to his father’s recovery, and so takes it upon himself to conduct a Homeric search through his home town of Watertown, New York, for the troubled author. Clarke uses Exley’s allegedly fictional caricature of himself to construct infectious personality traits – from off-color verbiage and quirky mannerisms to sporting affiliations – that are eventually adopted by Miller, his father and a comically misguided therapist.
Clarke expertly evokes other authors who deal with children’s quests in the face of tragedy and mental illness, from JD Salinger to Jonathan Safran Foer. In the end, however, the novel comes off as its own original foray into the land of floating realities, and explains why, though so many of us claim to want the truth, in the end we are almost always content to believe in a well-reasoned lie.