Brock Clarke’s novel disappointed me. It was an example of a book with a high concept that lags behind in execution. And the concept is kind of a doozy. One that should appeal to book lovers everywhere. Or at least to book lover’s who have an iconic fondness for a particular book, perhaps one read early on in one’s reading life.There are two alternating voices here. First there is the narrator, nine-year old Miller Le Ray. The second voice comes in the form of his shrinks ‘notes’ by one Dr. Pahnee (or, as he calls himself, M’s Mental Health Professional). I had read Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes in the early seventies, about 40 years ago, so my memory of it is foggy. But I certainly remember it making an impression on me (somehow the image of the New York Giant Frank Gifford sticks with me). It made more than an impression on Miller’s father Tom, who read it constantly. It was his bible. And Miller, who worships his father, has caught the bug (although he had promised his father not to read the book).
When some unexplained squabble between his parents comes up, Miller’s father leaves, ostensibly volunteering for service in Iraq. His mother denies that he went in to the service, so this sets up Miller’s sessions with Dr. Pahnee. It also sets up Miller’s quest to find out the truth of his father’s leaving, and his search for Exley, said to have lived in the town the Le Ray’s reside in, Watertown NY (the home of Ft. Drum). Miller believes that Exley is alive (he is not). Miller believes that a man laying comatose in the local VA Hospital is his father, while his mother denies this. Furthermore, Miller believes that the only one who can ‘save’ his father is Exley. The novel consists of the search for Exley and the uncovering of The Truth. Or the maintenance of the Fictions that Miller has constructed to explain his reality, to cope with the disappearance of his dad. Life sometimes presents us with twists and turns that test our ability to carry on. Sometime we must construct fictions in order for us to do so.
Both narrator’s here are “unreliable”. When Exley (or someone impersonating Exley) shows up toward the end, a call is placed to his biographer, Jonathan Yardley, (Misfit, The Strange Life of Frederick Exley). We have to wait until the last short chapter to resolve all the lies, built-up fictions and deceptions (self or otherwise). That chapter is entitled “The Truth.”
I’ve run into a spate of children in fiction that do not remotely call to mind people of their supposed age. And no amount of “precociousness” can explain it away. Certainly that’s the case here, which diminishes the novel, and levels it down to the ‘mildly interesting category.