"Misfit: The Strange Life of Frederick Exley," by Jonathan Yardley. Random House. 255 pages. $23.
Frederick Exley was, as Jonathan Yardley admits in his remarkable new biography, a "one book author." "A Fan's Notes" (1968), which exploded the culture of male heroism ("life isn't all a goddam football game"), was a unique piece of autobiographical fiction. Its virtues were "energy, passion, humor, candor" and an eloquent and original prose style. For Yardley, its narrator, "Fred Exley" is "one of the great characters in American literature, Huck Finn gone alcoholic and dissipated."
As a writer, Exley's great and only subject was himself, a character he approached with unyielding honesty in "A Fan's Notes," if not in its two sequels. Yardley writes that "no one was ever harder on Fred Exley than Fred Exley himself." He ranks "A Fan's Notes" with "Invisible Man" and "The Adventures of Augie March" as a "monument of postwar American fiction."
What is as striking as Exley's exposure of the emptiness of American male machismo is the extraordinary candor of Yardley's biography. Even as he admires "A Fan's Notes," Yardley is repelled by Exley's lust for literary fame, his neglect of his daughters, "his selfishness, his dependency, his irresponsibility, his sense of entitlement, his self-absorption." Infantile and often cruel, Exley despised women as he did himself.
"Biography is a vain and foolhardy undertaking," Yardley, who has written on Ring Lardner and is a columnist about books for the Washington Post, begins. He acknowledges that he has not discovered the causes of Exley's alcoholism, his self-destructiveness and inability to feel for other human beings. Exley's "inner essence" is destined to remain forever beyond a biographer's grasp.
Yardley proposes for the life of a man whose "life's journey" was largely "interior" not the all-too-customary full-scale massive chronicle, but an "informal portrait." "Misfit" is a meditation on the life of a man Yardley knew through long telephone conversations. He has produced so deeply absorbing a book because he is content to reside among the contradictions of Exley's life. Exley's "infantilism," Yardley reveals, was "part of what made him the writer he was."
Exley "felt the world owed him a living yet money meant little to him." His behavior was erratic: "There was scarcely a soul in his life against whom he did not turn at one time or another." The same man was capable of a "ferocious" loyalty.
Yardley's reasoned moderation does not permit him to indulge in pop psychology. He refuses the easy truism that machismo and misogyny only conceal repressed homosexuality, despite Exley's proven discomfort with the heterosexual act. Even as he cannot help but be outraged by Exley's cruelties ("What a piece of work he was!") Yardley's text is informed by an abiding sympathy ("his loneliness must have been unbearable").
The voice which informs "Misfit" is the most impressive part of Yardley's achievement. It is the voice of a friend, yet one unwilling to be duped. At times the biographer is exasperated. Often he is appalled. Ultimately he is forgiving. "Misfit" is a paradigm of grown-up biography, selective and measured. Uncensoring of the worst, Yardley frees himself to praise the benighted Exley at his finest.
Joan Mellen's most recent book is the dual biography "Hellman and Hammett." She also wrote the biographies of Kay Boyle and of basketball coach Bob Knight. She teaches in the creative writing program at Temple University in Philadelphia.