NPR logo 'Exley': A Mental Maze Worthy Of Its Namesake

'Exley': A Mental Maze Worthy Of Its Namesake

Exley: A Novel
By Brock Clarke
Hardcover, 320 pages
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
List Price: $24.95

Read An Excerpt

There are no rules for loss, no rules for estrangement, except maybe this one: Absence makes the heart grow confused. Once somebody you love goes away, your mind plays a series of tricks on you, and you almost never get a second chance.

"The heart wants what it wants," said Woody Allen, and if it wants something badly enough, it can invent it, fabricate it out of thin air. Miller, the brilliant 9-year-old protagonist of Brock Clarke's remarkable new novel, Exley, seems to know this: "Love is not wanting the thing you love to ever end," he thinks.

Miller is a bona fide prodigy — he reads at several grade levels above his age  — and he's smart enough to know that everything has to end. His father disappeared after a bitter fight with Miller's mother, and the boy is convinced that he's found him in a VA hospital in their hometown of Watertown, N.Y., critically injured in the Iraq war. Nobody believes him, though — not his mother, who thinks her husband is just drinking his life away in another town; not his well-intentioned but not entirely competent psychiatrist, who shares Miller's mother's suspicion that the boy is just making everything up. Denial, after all, can be the most confusing, disorienting stage of grief — as Miller notes, "There's nothing as quiet as that moment before one person is about to tell another something neither of them wants to hear."

Brock Clarke is also the author of An Arsonist's Guide To Writers' Homes In New England. John Hughes hide caption

toggle caption John Hughes

Brock Clarke is also the author of An Arsonist's Guide To Writers' Homes In New England.

John Hughes

The confused, heartbroken Miller isn't the only main character of Clarke's novel — there's also the book's namesake, Frederick Exley, the author of his father's favorite book, A Fan's Notes. Exley was a longtime Watertown resident; Miller believes that if he could find him, the writer could somehow help his father to heal. He's unaware, sadly, that the novelist died of a stroke in 1992.

With Exley, his fifth book, Clarke attempts to make sense of our basic ideas of family, identity and denial — issues he tackled in a very different way in his previous novel, the critically beloved An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England. The novel shifts points of view between Miller and his psychiatrist, unnamed throughout the book; both are wholly original characters, good-hearted but imperfect. (Miller can be cold and patronizing to his mother and his friends; the doctor is something of a prude and can't stand it when his patients cry.) Both boy and doctor read A Fan's Notes in an attempt to understand Miller's father; the experience not only changes them, but makes them, almost, lose themselves.

Nothing comes easy in Exley, and the reader is never really sure, until the book's final page, whether what's happening is actually real. In the hands of a less talented writer, the novel's layers, twists and identity puzzles could strain the belief of even the most credulous reader; but Clarke's narrative assurance and unfailingly realistic characters allow him to pull off the literary equivalent of a half-court shot. This would have been a hard novel to write even adequately, but Clarke's performance here is extraordinary; it's far and away the best work of his career.

Excerpt: 'Exley'

Exley: A Novel
By Brock Clarke
Hardcover, 320 pages
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
List Price: $24.95

Doctor's Notes (Entry 4)

After three unproductive — unproductive and, indeed, counterpro­ductive — meetings with M., I try a new approach and ask the pa­tient if he has ideas as to how I might help him. M. considers this for several moments and then makes an odd request: that I become a dif­ferent doctor, with a different name, a different manner of speaking and dressing. Even a different hairstyle. Even a beard. M. goes so far as to suggest — suggest and, indeed, encourage — specific things for me to say at certain moments during our meeting: when I first greet the patient, after the patient tells me his most innermost thoughts and fears, when I say good-bye to the patient, etc. Strangely, I agree. Possibly because M. is onto something. Possibly because normal strategies seem not to be work­ing. Possibly because M. is right: possibly a change in doctoring is in order. Possibly Dr. Horatio Pahnee (the name M. has given me) will be able to heal M. whereas I have failed. In any case, I shall think of it as a study — a study and, indeed, a clinical study; if findings are satisfactory, I will present them during my speech at the North Country Mental Health Professionals’ annual meeting later this autumn.

After our meeting, I open the front door to let M. out. I am about to exclaim our newly agreed-upon good-bye when I see the patient’s mother sitting on the porch railing. I have not seen her since our first session, and my arm and arm hair tingle wildly. She and I exchange conventional greetings. She kisses her son on the top of the head and then asks him if he wouldn’t mind waiting in the car, just for a second. M. walks to the car; as he does so, he looks at me over his shoulder. I know how to read his look, and I look back, to tell him I will not betray his confidences. When he is in the car, M.’s mother asks, "How’s it going?"

"Not well," I answer truthfully. I do not want to tell her the rest of the truth — that we’ve had something of a breakthrough today — because then she will ask for details about the breakthrough and I fear I will tell her.

"Oh," she says. She looks sadly at the car. Her sadness seems genuine. This is not my area of expertise, exactly, but I believe her to be a good mother. I almost touch her on the arm as she touched me on the arm, to console her. But I fear that my touch won’t tingle her arm as hers tingled mine, and how unbearably sad that would be. She looks back at me. She is still sad about M. Sad, she is still beautiful. "Do you think there’s any­thing else you could do?" she asks.

"Such as?" I ask. I genuinely want to know. Please help me, I almost say but don’t, as it would be unprofessional in a mental health professional.

"You’ve already read..." And she names the book with which M.’s father was obsessed, causing, I believe, his son’s obsession, although M. claims not even to have read the book, let alone be obsessed with it. I glanced at the first chapter, and so I know the book is of local origin. Or at least the author is "from around here" (I myself am from Rochester, a veritable metropolis when compared to Watertown). But other than that, I haven’t read the book. I almost tell M.’s mother that and then suggest she read my article in the official proceedings from last year’s North Country Mental Health Professionals’ meeting, which suggests that whereas in the past, people turned to literature to improve their lives, they now turn to their mental health professionals. But clearly she expects me already to have read the book, especially since she gave me a copy of the book after M.’s last session. So I say, "I have read the book." I try to make my voice as noncommittal as possible, but M.’s mother hears something in it — perhaps what she wants to hear — and says, "I know, it’s awful." M.’s mother sighs, through her nose, and it sounds light and musical. It is my professional opinion that mental health professionals should never, ever use the word "crazy" to describe their patients, or anyone else for that matter. But it occurs to me that M.’s father must be crazy — crazy and, indeed, insane — to leave someone like M.’s mother. "I worry so much about M.," she says. "Do you have any other ideas?"

"I have a few ideas," I say, again noncommittally. M.’s mother waits, I believe for me to list the ideas. When I do not, she says: "Well, do you think you should follow M. or something?"

"Follow him?" I say. I try not to sound offended, although I am. Be­cause I don’t want M.’s mother to think I’m a man who is easily offended. Unless she likes men, or mental health professionals, who are easily of­fended. "I am a mental health professional, not a private detective."

M.’s mother doesn’t reply. She just looks at me with her deep, deep black eyes. M. has described to me these eyes and their effect. I believe that M.’s mother respects me for standing my professional ground. I also believe that I will end up being a private detective, if that’s what M.’s mother really wants me to be.

Excerpted from Exley: A Novel by Brock Clarke. Copyright 2010 by Brock Clarke. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books, a division of Workman Publishing.

Books Featured In This Story


by Brock Clarke

Hardcover, 303 pages |


Buy Featured Book

Brock Clarke

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

We no longer support commenting on stories, but you can find us every day on Facebook, Twitter, email, and many other platforms. Learn more or contact us.