Ever since Mark Twain made it clear that a prepubescent boy could make a mighty fine narrator, American fiction has enjoyed a spate of latter-day Huck Finns, each of them irresistibly precocious in his own way. Now Exley’s Miller Le Ray joins this company of youthful raconteurs, all of whom have an exceptional clarity of vision to see things as they are because they are boyishly unafraid to imagine things as they ought to be.
Miller believes that his runaway father went to Iraq and has now come back badly wounded, laid up in the VA hospital a few blocks away from the house where Miller lives with his mother in Watertown, New York. To relieve him of these “fantasies,” Miller’s mother sends the boy to a therapist. Naturally, that’s when all psychological hell breaks loose.
The question is, which of these suffering souls has the firmest hold on the actual facts of the case? Miller? Miller’s mother? Miller’s dad, wherever he is? The therapist, who only half-sanely narrates part of the story? Frederick Exley, the real-life, down-and-out author from Watertown, whom Miller now tries to track down, believing that only Exley can save his dying father? Jonathan Yardley, Exley’s real-life biographer, who makes a cameo late in the novel? With this dazzling and hilarious chorus of perspectives—all of them toeing a precarious line between hard reality and redemptive fantasy—Exley marks an artistic leap for Brock Clarke from his previous hit novel, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, in which readers bore witness to the moral development of just one schlemiel.
Frederick Exley, the patron saint of this novel, possessed the awful wisdom of the loser: What is really true is hardly ever what is merely good. This is an insight that can save us, even as it threatens to drive us crazy. It is what helps a boy to grow up, even as it hurts him, even as it comes his way from those who love him.