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'Exley': A Mental Maze Worthy Of Its Namesake

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."

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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.