By Jane Howard
November 14, 1988 12:00 PM

“I almost never watch television,” says author Fred Exley, “but I never turn it off either.” The glow and hum comfort him even after midnight, when the screen goes blank until the new broadcasting day begins at 6 a.m. with “O Canada,” the anthem of the nation a few miles away. At that hour, Exley is usually asleep across the living room, scrunched up on the sofa—shorter than his five feet, ten inches—that he prefers to the bed in the next room.

His book-strewn, three-room condominium near Alexandria Bay, N.Y., on one of the St. Lawrence River’s Thousand Islands, is the grizzled Exley’s cave, his remote refuge from the world. It is also native ground, just 23 miles north of Watertown, N.Y., where he was born 59 years ago. A bearish man, Exley is given to long periods of hibernation from which he sporadically emerges with novels of rare power, works of an almost dainty grace and devouring rage. His prose has been compared with that of James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald ever since Exley burst onto the literary scene in 1968 with A Fan’s Notes. That strongly autobiographical first novel, which has been declared an American classic, was the first volume of a proposed trilogy. But it was seven years before the next installment, Pages from a Cold Island, appeared, and it has taken him exactly two decades from the debut of the trilogy to deliver the final book, Last Notes from Home, published this fall by Random House. His other two novels have been reissued in paperback. Writing anything at all in recent years, he explains, has entailed a running battle with despair.

In fact, this most recent update on what Exley calls, in A Fan’s Notes, “that long malaise, my life” comes as a surprise to some of his fans, who had deduced from the writer’s long dormancy—and from what they know of his habits (he’s not exactly a fitness freak)—that the extended malaise must have ended. “What?” said one, “Exley’s finished his trilogy? You mean he’s still alive?” So he is, exiled but triumphant in his north country lair.

But no more likable. The narrator of Last Notes, also named Fred Exley, variously describes himself as a “tubby little wimp,” a “conniving wretch,” a “sucker for a broad’s sobs,” and a “virtually unknown and unheralded author, drunk, child abandoner, and ex-mental patient.” Since the real Exley is and is not his fictitious namesake, these allegations are and are not true. The real Exley assuredly drinks, talks endlessly of his womanizing and regrets having seen little of his two daughters. He was also institutionalized three times in the 1950s for a variously diagnosed combination of paranoia and schizophrenia. The fiction he crafts from this checkered personal history is by turns heartbreaking, funny and appalling. “My problem,” says Exley, “is always one of reining in reality, not of hyperbole.”

On this brilliantly sunny mid-morning, Exley receives a visitor in his usual at-home costume: skivvies, period. On his walls Exley has hung a postcard of the Mona Lisa, a portrait of a huge-eyed kid by Margaret Keane, some watercolors of Paris, a few photographs of relatives and friends and a couple of Andrew Wyeth prints. Jars of the pills he takes for angina and high blood pressure, among other ailments, are on the coffee table before him, along with some unread letters, an overflowing ashtray and a half-empty bottle of vodka. “Do you say AN-gina or an-GI-na?” he inquires of his guest. “And is it NI-hilism or NEE-hilism?” By this time yesterday he was well into his second inch-and-a-half shot of vodka. Today, resolving to “start to taper off,” he’s drinking only beer. The letters, once read, will be stashed in a box Exley keeps under his desk. When the box is full, he will ship it off to the University of Rochester’s library. Reviews go in these boxes, too. But first, Exley says, “I’ve taken every review I ever had to bed with me and read it about 20 times.” His friend and fellow novelist William Gaddis says Exley is “more consumed by writing than any other author I can think of.”

Exley’s writing has won him a steadfast, patient literary cult and a number of prizes, but very little in the way of riches. “At a time when most of my contemporaries are getting ready to retire, I’m trying to rub two shekels together to buy a can of chicken noodle soup,” Exley says. “If I made a killing, though, I’d probably still drive my ’74 Oldsmobile. What I would do is go back to Lanai, the least commercialized island in Hawaii, before it gets f—– up completely by the developers.”

Islands suit Exley, who is insular by nature. Lanai is the setting for much of Last Notes, and Pages from a Cold Island (the coldness is metaphorical) is a report from Singer Island, Fla. Great Britain suits him fine, too, but Manhattan does not. “Don’t you think something terrible happens to people,” he asks, “when they spend too much time in New York?” He finds the Hamptons on Long Island even less appealing. Forced to attend a party in his honor there in 1984, Exley accosted a female guest and said, “Whoever you are, I love you. Get me out of here.”

The Thousand Islands, to Exley’s way of thinking, are “as close as you’ll get to paradise unless you spend a lot of time on your knees.” In A Fan’s Notes he describes “the oddly comforting sensation of ascending…to a glacial and opaline haven where a man, having been hard-used by the world or having used himself hard, might go and ask himself where things had gone wrong.”

People have been asking Exley that question all his life. In Pages he tells of the “coruscating abruptness” with which his older brother, Bill, once asked, on a postcard, what Fred was doing yet again in a mental institution. Fred replied that he was “afraid, afraid of too much beauty and too much ugliness, afraid of loving and of going unloved, afraid of living and afraid of dying, so afraid of the sun that I could not open my eyes to the morning, and so afraid of the darkness I could not close my eyes to sleep, AFRAID.”

On Bill’s next postcard he replied, “I do not accept your fears…. Get off the sauce!” Once, for 106 days, Fred actually did get off the sauce and also off tobacco, but it didn’t last. “I never knew a man who drank so much or who could quit so suddenly and thoroughly,” says his Random House editor, Robert Loomis, adding, “He never drinks when he’s writing.” But he always does, it seems, when he isn’t. (“I’m perfectly aware that I’m an alcoholic,” Exley says.)

Exley has no checking account, no credit cards and no use for the world of corporate public relations, where he was once headed for a vice-presidency. “But to see how devious those guys are took my breath away,” he says. “So I walked away and never went back.” The most improbable career he ever contemplated—because he thought it might please his parents—was dentistry. He took pre-dental courses at Hobart College in Upstate New York before transferring to the University of Southern California to major in English. “Now my dentist and I laugh about which of us envies the other more,” he says. Exley also tried teaching high school but quit, he says, because “I had neither the patience nor the wit…to give students less than I knew.”

His own school career was erratic, veering as it did between a disdain for authority and a lust for glory. “Other men might inherit from their fathers a head for figures [or] a gold pocket watch,” he wrote in A Fan’s Notes, “from mine I acquired this need to have my name whispered in reverential tones.” Earl Exley, who climbed poles for the telephone company, was a big local sports hero. His second son, Fred, played championship basketball in high school, seeking—and finding—similar acclaim. But his true destiny, Fred still felt, was “to sit in the stands with most men and acclaim others…to be a fan.”

The “others” acclaimed in his books have little in common except Exley’s veneration for them. A Fan’s Notes extols former USC classmate Frank Gifford, who before his present career as an ABC-TV sports commentator played halfback for the New York Giants. Pages is a tribute to that other Upstate writer Edmund Wilson, whom Exley never met but whose prose “did more for me than any psychiatrist.”

Last Notes pays homage to Bill, a disillusioned Army Intelligence colonel who survived combat in World War II, Korea and Vietnam to die of cancer at 46. Exley had hoped that one day he could sit around the pool with “the Brigadier,” as he calls him, and puzzle out “the mid-20th-century American nightmare.” Instead Last Notes opens with a flight to Bill’s deathbed in Hawaii by the narrator and his grieving mother. It ends with the voluptuous stewardess from that flight riding toward Exley on a surfboard, in a raging Waikiki sea, dressed in her grandmother’s wedding gown. They’re getting married, and the narrator vows to “defeat you, Miss America…defeat you, learn to live with you and make you mine.”

The real-life Exley, twice divorced, is struck by “human awkwardness, by how sad it is that men and women continually betray each other. Life often seems just one missed connection after another,” he says. “All the time you were mooning over Ava Gardner when you were 17, there was a girl right next to you in study hall waiting to take you to paradise.” At 59, Exley is a lonesome, if not precisely monkish, romantic. “Flies can f—, but sooner or later you have to have somebody you can talk to,” he says. “Like [the Saul Bellow character] Augle March, I want to risk great happiness.” So, he thinks, do most women. Most women, in his opinion, “want their door kicked open, like Marlon Brando kicked in Eva Marie Saint’s in On the Waterfront, but they only want one guy to do it,” he says. “A woman wants to be a woman, wants a guy who acts like a man and smells like a man. I’ve never been into rape, though. I’ve never made out with a chick who didn’t hand me her bloomers and say, ‘Do with me what you must.’ ”

Allusions to movies pop up regularly in Exley’s conversation. “Remember From Here to Eternity,” he asks, “when Donna Reed asked Monty Clift why he wants to go back to his Army outfit? ‘Just because you love something,’ Clift tells her, ‘doesn’t mean it’s gotta love you back.’ ” Another favorite scene is from An American in Paris, when Gene Kelly tells Oscar Levant, “You only fall in love once.”

“Oh,” says Levant, “do you think it happens that often?”

Estranged from both his ex-wives, Exley has spent little time with his grown daughters. Pamela, 26, his child with first wife Francena, has settled in Darien, Conn., after taking a degree in art history, and has a 5-year-old daughter, Ashley, whom Exley has never met. Alexandra, 21, a student at Emerson College in Boston, was adopted by a later husband of Exley’s second wife, Nancy. But Alexandra keeps in touch with “Ex,” as she calls her father, and not long ago brought a boyfriend to visit. It saddens Exley that his daughters have had so little opportunity to get a sense of his own family. Exley’s twin, Frances, a lab technician, and his younger sister, Constance, live nearby with their husbands and families. So do his mother, his aunt and any number of drinking buddies—the “guys I was in third grade with,” to whom he remains intensely loyal.

“Fred loves having a surround,” says his longtime friend Mary Cantwell of the New York Times, who once vacationed with Exley on Lanai. “Wherever he is, he finds quasi-families who treat him as their child.” Exley’s next-door neighbors here on Wellesley Island refer to him as “our other son, Freddy.” And though his face, devilishly handsome on the 20-year-old book jacket of A Fan’s Notes, is now puffy and gray-bearded, he still has mischief in his eyes and a rare, true laugh.

Appropriately for the son of a lineman, Exley, camped at the edge of the country and of sanity, uses the telephone as a lifeline. His is a plain old rotary dial, but it suffices to call outside area code 315, as Exley frequently and famously does. On Singer Island, on Manhattan, on Lanai and on all the other islands where his friends live, the phones ring at all hours.

“It’s Ex,” begins the deep, gravelly voice, slurred even when he’s sober. Novelist William Styron figures that for every hour he and Exley have spent in person during their long friendship, they have talked for nine hours on the phone. “His curmudgeonly persona really comes to life on the phone, as he develops his wonderful indignations and hatreds,” says Styron.

Now, though, it’s not quite noon, way too early for a calling jag. Instead, Exley pulls on his khakis, a sweater and a visored cap and heads the Oldsmobile to Alexandria Bay to pay a visit to his mother and then stop by a favorite bar.

“Vodka?” asks the waitress as soon as she sees Exley. She sets up a shot. He drinks it and says, “I guess I’ll start tapering off tomorrow.”