Monday, March 21, 2011

Review: Exley, by Brock Clarke

Reviewed by Christina

Published: 2010

It's about: Exley is told by two unreliable narrators: Miller and his "Mental Health Professional." Miller is a 9-year-old speed reader with an overactive imagination. He believes his father, Tom, joined the army, was shipped out to Iraq, and is now lying comatose in the local V.A. hospital. Miller's mother doesn't know where Tom is, but she insists that her husband didn't join the army. She believes Miller needs help sorting reality from fantasy, and so she starts taking him to "Dr. Pahnee", a therapist who turns out to be rather unstable himself. "Dr. Pahnee" tries to help, but things are complicated by his love-at-first-sight feelings toward Miller's mother.

Miller knows that Tom was obsessed with A Fan's Notes, Frederick Exley's critically acclaimed but largely unknown book. So now Miller believes, with a child's unwavering faith, that if he can find Exley and bring him to the V.A. hospital, Tom will be miraculously revived.

I thought: Yes! This was just what I needed: a compelling, sharp, mind-bending novel. At its core, Exley is a mystery. I couldn't wait to find out how much of what I was reading was real and how much was Miller's imaginary world. I actually stayed up too late reading this book, and that's saying something; sleep is a pretty high priority for me.

Both narrators are well-developed, but I found Miller especially sympathetic. There's something beautiful and sad about the voice of a precocious child, someone who doesn't identify with his peers but who also can't interpret adults. I think almost everyone who reads Miller's chapters will remember what it was like to try to pick apart adults' seemingly cryptic conversations. Miller's therapist's idiomatic notes were also entertaining- just stilted and puzzling enough to ring true.

The story takes place in and around Watertown, NY, and the nearby U.S. Army base, Ft. Drum. Most of the students at Miller's school have parents who are serving or have served in Iraq. I don't think military families get a lot of play in contemporary literature, and the ongoing war in Iraq is easy for us civilians to forget about. Brock Clarke focuses pretty heavily on the war, its veterans, and their families. I appreciated that, and thought it worked well in Exley.

Overall, a very clever and affecting book with a highly unusual story. I loved it.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf!

Reading Recommendations: This book reminded me of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and I suspect it also has a lot in common with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (which I haven't read, though I'd like to). So if you liked either of those, I'd recommend Exley.
It's been years since I read A Fan's Notes, so it's pretty fuzzy in my memory. You don't have to read it before picking up Exley, but they'd make a great pair.

: Quite a lot of language.

Favorite excerpts:
From one of Miller's chapters:
"It was like waking up in the middle of the night and seeing a man sitting on your floor and asking him who he is, what he's doing there, and he doesn't answer, and he doesn't answer, until you gradually realize he doesn't answer because he's a pile of dirty clothes that you were supposed to put in the hamper, and you end up being relieved and then disappointed."

From one of the therapist's chapters, a conversation with Miller's mother:
"'And then he'll hate me.'
'Yes,' I say.
'And that will kill me.'
Not literally, I almost say but don't. Because maybe it would literally kill her. Because we don't know what's going to kill us- whether it'll be a kiss, a bottle, a book, a bomb- which is why we keep trusting people who say they can save us, whether it's a writer, a father, a mother, a lawyer, a son, a soldier, a lover, or a mental health professional."

What I'm reading next: Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls