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Authors: Brock Clarke


BOOK: Exley
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Praise for

“Clarke has a distinctively winning style. He imagines characters so careful in their reasoning that they are deeply, maddeningly unreasonable but also tenderly hapless at the same time. Mr. Clarke is able to make their isolation both heart-rending and comically absurd.”

—The New York Times

“It's the flashes of insight into what it's like to fiercely love a far-from-perfect father and his sad-sack hero despite their flaws that will move you.”

San Francisco Chronicle

“Remarkable . . . In the hands of a less talented writer, the novel's layers, twists and identity puzzles could strain the belief of even the most credulous reader; but Clarke's narrative assurance and unfailingly realistic characters allow him to pull off the literary equivalent of a half-court shot. This would have been a hard novel to write even adequately, but Clarke's performance here is extraordinary; it's far and away the best work of his career.”

—Michael Schaub,

“Clarke expertly evokes other authors who deal with children's quests in the face of tragedy and mental illness, from J. D. 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.”

Time Out New York,
five stars

“[Clarke] has created a young narrator as winning and wise as Christopher Boone in Mark Haddon's 2003 bestseller,
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
. . . underscore[ing] the gulf that can exist between parents and their children.”

—The Boston Globe

“Brock Clarke reduced large swaths of the literary landscape to ashes in
An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England,
his wickedly funny 2007 novel that skewered everything from book clubs and Harry Potter to falsified memoirs—especially nervy, that last, since Clarke's text assumed the form of a memoir . . . It seems apt, then, that his new novel pays tribute (if you can call it that) to the real-life American novelist Frederick Exley and his 1968 ‘fictional memoir' called
A Fan's Notes
. . . Clarke pulls off a nice trick here, playing postmodern games while delivering a cleverly plotted story complete with a surprise twist embedded in Miller's partial understanding of his parents' tension-riddled relationship.”

Washington Post Book World

“Frederick Exley's classic 1968 account of his epic alcoholism,
A Fan's Notes,
bears the oxymoronic subtitle ‘A Fictional Memoir.' It is the space between those words, between real and fabricated memory, that Clarke examines . . . With humor as black as Exley's liver, Clarke picks apart the fictions we tell one another—and those we tell ourselves.”

—Entertainment Weekly

“In Brock Clarke's follow-up to the excellent
An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England,
hidden identities and secret affairs bubble up when a young boy investigates why his father left the family. We laughed. We cried. We wanted to strangle the meddling therapist.”

—Daily Candy

“Wrenching . . . Glimmering in the gloom are some metafictional surprises . . . and some moments of piercing sweetness.”

The Cleveland Plain Dealer

“The novel unfolds like a murder-mystery without a real murder, just realizations of who is alive and who is dead and why. It explores memory, pain, loss, love and longing with a fresh, lively structure and with a cast of characters both painfully charming and exquisitely flawed.”

—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Oddly brilliant . . . The luminously engaging plot reveals the deceptions we cling to in order to survive . . . Clarke's breathtaking creativity gives unexpected power to his quirky, touching story.”

The Daily Beast

“Clarke has managed to explore memory, pain, love and loss. Taking the reader through a maze of stories that may be true and may be pure fantasy, what Miller is making up and what is real is not revealed until the final pages.”

The Eugene (OR) News-Review

“[A] poignant paean to the powers of books, love, and imagination . . .
is worth a little obsession.”

The Buffalo News

Brock Clarke's latest novel is as intellectually intriguing as it is emotionally chilling . . . The strength of Clarke's book, narrated so clearly by Miller Le Ray along with his therapist's easy articulations, is the juxtaposition of that voice with the pure mystery of whether Miller's assertions spring from his observations or his imagination.”

Louisville Courier-Journal

“With this dazzling and hilarious chorus of perspectives—all of them toeing a precarious line between hard reality and redemptive fantasy —
marks an artistic leap for Brock Clarke.”


“In his latest brain-teasing raid on literary history, following the much-acclaimed
An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England
(2007), Clarke riffs on a cult classic,
A Fan's Notes: A Fictional Memoir
(1968), by Frederick Exley . . . There are hilarious moments; Miller is endearing; and Clarke's take on the cruel toll of the Iraq War is profound.”


“Another literary high-wire performance by a novelist who is establishing himself as a unique voice in contemporary fiction . . . A seriously playful novel about the interweave of literature and life.”

—Kirkus Reviews,
starred review


An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England
Carrying the Torch
What We Won't Do
The Ordinary White Boy


a novel by

Brock Clarke

Published by
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Post Office Box 2225
Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27515-2225

a division of
Workman Publishing
225 Varick Street
New York, New York 10014

© 2010 by Brock Clarke.
All rights reserved.
First paperback edition, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, September 2011.
Originally published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill in 2010.
Printed in the United States of America.
Published simultaneously in Canada by Thomas Allen & Son Limited.
Design by April Leidig-Higgins.

This is a work of fiction. While, as in all fiction, the literary perceptions and insights are based on experience, all names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.


Clarke, Brock.

Exley : a novel / by Brock Clarke. — 1st ed.

p. cm.

ISBN 978-1-56512-608-4 (HC)

1. Boys — Fiction. 2. Watertown (N.Y.) — Fiction. 3. Children
of disappeared persons — Fiction. 4. Iraq War, 2003 — Veterans —
Fiction. 5. Fathers and sons — Fiction. 6. Mothers and sons — Fiction.
7. Therapist and patient — Fiction. 8. Psychotherapists — Fiction.
9. Mind and reality — Fiction. 10. Psychological fiction. I. Title.

PS3603.L37E95 2010

813'.6 — dc22                                                  2010015518

ISBN 978-1-61620-084-8 (PB)

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
First Paperback Edition

This book is dedicated to
Quinn and Ambrose and in
memory of Frederick Exley

Though the events in this book bear similarity to those of that long malaise, my life, many of the characters and happenings are creations solely of the imagination. In such cases, I of course disclaim any responsibility for their resemblance to real people or events, which would be coincidental . . . . In creating such characters, I have drawn freely from the imagination and adhered only loosely to the pattern of my past life. To this extent, and for this reason, I ask to be judged as a writer of fantasy.

Frederick Exley,
A Fan's Notes

First session with new patient — M. — and his mother. Just a boy — nine years old — but with an active — active and, indeed,
— imagination. M. believes strongly that his father left him (M.) and his (M.'s) mother to join the army and go to Iraq. His mother believes strongly that his father left them, but not to join the army and not to go to Iraq. What is certain is that wherever the father is, he's no longer in the family home. What is also certain is that the mother is beautiful. So beautiful that for a moment I forget that I'm here to talk to M. and not to look at his mother. When I realize that I'm ignoring my patient, I give myself a stern reprimand, mentally.

“Do you know why you're here?” I ask M., as I ask every patient in our first session.

“My mother thinks I'm making things up,” he replies. “She doesn't believe anything I tell her.”

“I just want you to get better, M.,” his mother tells him. “It's not a matter of who believes who.” Then she turns to me. “Is it?” she asks, and touches my right forearm very gently, with just the tips of her left index and ring fingers. When she removes her fingers, my arm — my arm and, indeed, my arm
tingles. It tingles again as I write these words.

“Indeed, no,” I assure M. But I am inclined to believe his mother.

Doctor's Notes (Entry 1)


Part One



Anything Can Be a Beginning As Long As You Call It One

y name is Miller Le Ray. I am ten years old. I was nine years old when my dad went to Iraq, and I was still nine years old eight months later when I found out he was back from Iraq and in the VA hospital. The day I went to see him in the VA hospital was the day I started trying to find Exley. Exley was the guy who wrote my dad's favorite book,
A Fan's Notes
. Mother calls the Exley I eventually found a Man Who Just
He Was Exley. But I just call him Exley. Because this is one of the things I learned on my own: you need to say things simply, especially when they're complicated.

So why don't I begin there: the day I went to see my dad in the VA hospital. Exley's book begins toward the end, but he calls it a beginning anyway. Because this is one of the things I learned from Exley: anything can be a beginning as long as you call it one.



A Beginning

woke up on Sunday, the eleventh of November, 200–, knowing that my dad had come home from the war. I knew this without anyone having to tell me; I knew it in my bones, the way you always know the most important things. I jumped out of bed and ran into my parents' room. The bed was unmade and there was no one in it. The room was as empty as the bed. I checked the upstairs bathroom. The faucet was dripping, like always. Before my dad went away, Mother sometimes joked that he was the kind of guy who would join up and go to Iraq just so he wouldn't have to fix the faucet. After he left, she stopped making the joke. But anyway, the bathroom was also empty. I went back to his bedroom, in case my dad had snuck in there while I was in the other rooms looking for him. But it was empty, too. Then I heard a sound coming from downstairs. It was Mother, crying. Mother never cried. The only other time I had ever heard her cry was when my dad went to Iraq in the first place. This was, of course, how I knew my dad was home: I'd heard Mother crying without knowing I'd heard her crying. When we say we know something in our bones, we mean we don't know yet how we know what we know. This is what we mean by “bones.”

So I ran downstairs and followed the sound of Mother's crying, which led me to the bathroom. The door was closed. I went to knock, then almost didn't. Because it was hard to have an intelligent conversation with Mother when she was in the bathroom. I knew, from experience, that if I knocked on the bathroom door, this is how the conversation would go.

BOOK: Exley
12.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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