In a 1996 interview with Charlie Rose, David Foster Wallace explained what turned him on about writing and reading. “There’s this part of what makes art magical to me,” he said, “that’s redemptive and instructive — where when you read something you go, ‘My god that’s me, I’ve lived like that, I’ve felt like that — I’m not alone in the world.’ ”
As you probably know by now, on September 12 Wallace hung himself after a long battle with depression. I can’t pretend that I have much to add to the eulogies of him and his work that have appeared pretty much everywhere since — I never met the man and, though I read nearly everything he wrote, I’m neither a critic nor a literary luminary.
But what I do want to say is that I’d never have written a word for the Phoenix, would never have become a serious writer, had it not been for David Foster Wallace. He was my hero, first because of the way he wrote, but soon after because of something more important: he changed the way I look at the world in such a significant way I consider it one of the greatest gifts anyone has given me.
In 1996, just out of school, I was the DJ at a popular club near India Point. It was a pretty good gig, except that after a while it became, quite simply, boring.
So I started bringing a Phoenix up into the booth with me, and I remember reading two pieces there that have led to everything in my life that has come since. The first was by and about a guy trying to become a postal worker; the second was a review of a book by an author I’d never heard of: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace.
The article was good, but what I remember most about it was feeling, as I was reading it, that I could do this. Of course, I had no idea how. That was where the review came in: it raved about Wallace’s book, I went out and bought it, and nothing for me would ever be the same.
There was the language, to start with — it was unlike anything I had ever seen, the blistering speed of it, but mostly the way Wallace’s intelligence mixed with a vernacular that more closely resembled the way I thought than anything I had before encountered.
But there was something else, too, which would ultimately mean a great deal more to me. The first I noticed it was in “Getting Away From Pretty Much Being Away From It All,” Wallace’s well-known essay about the Illinois State Fair. Toward the end of the piece, Wallace walks into a clog-dancing competition merely to get away from the heat, the noise, the crowds outside. Wallace at this point is tired, and much of that exhaustion has come from what you sense is the soul-wearying exhibition of obesity — of both mind and body — he’d been wading through for days.
But watching the dancers, something happens to him. Something overtakes him: