Another literary high-wire performance by a novelist who is establishing himself as a unique voice in contemporary fiction.
This novel shares significant qualities with its predecessor (An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England, 2007), which provided a critical breakthrough for Clarke. Both have protagonists who are good-hearted, well-intentioned and self-delusional, thus as unreliable as they are likable. And both have a metafictional, book-about-books quality. In this case, as the title suggests, the creative springboard is Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, a memoirist novel that itself confuses the real with the imagined. Here is what the reader knows for sure: Nine-year-old Miller lives in Watertown, N.Y., with his mother, a lawyer specializing in domestic-abuse cases among the military. His father, whom Miller loves and who left the family, is obsessed with Exley’s novel, so much so that its setting brought him to Watertown. Miller is so precociously intelligent that he has leapfrogged to the eighth grade. He narrates most of the novel. He also sees a therapist to help him deal with the absence of his father and his inability to distinguish the actual from the imaginary (a coping mechanism). The therapist develops some identity issues of his own. Miller’s father may have been a professor, an alcoholic, an adulterer, or all or none of them. Miller is convinced that his father enlisted to fight in the war in Iraq, and has returned from combat in critical condition to the local VA hospital. He also believes that if he can find Exley he will save his father’s life. Yet Exley in real life is dead, according to a biography by Jonathan Yardley (the book critic who also emerges as a character here). “Sometimes you have to tell the truth about what you’ve done so that people will believe you when you tell them the truth about other stuff you haven’t done,” says Miller, who is in for as many surprises as the reader.
A seriously playful novel about the interweave of literature and life.