On Sept. 12, America lost one of its major literary figures with the death of novelist, short-story writer and essayist David Foster Wallace. Only 24 when his first book, a novel called The Broom of the System, was published, Wallace was most notably the author of Infinite Jest, a sprawling work of experimental fiction that availed itself of post-modernity's freedom. A professor of mine, perhaps showing more than a little professional jealousy, once had this to say of the massively footnoted, 1,088-page book: "Every year a student gives me a copy of Infinite Jest and tells me this is the best book of their generation. I say, 'Have you read it?' Inevitably they say, 'No.' Now, that either says something about the book, or your generation."
I was in the midst of a move and going through old papers when I happened upon a yellow dining-service response card that reminded me of an encounter with him.
In 2000, when I was a student at Kenyon College, Wallace gave an evening reading on campus. The book-jacket photos fed expectations of a casually cool figure: long hair and bandanna, perhaps a subtly ironic T-shirt. But in person—with his bowl cut, unremarkable glasses, untucked and rumpled button-up shirt—the effect was quite different. Totally nondescript, he looked more like a computer programmer than a celebrated novelist. His stage presence was of a piece with the clothing. The way he delivered the material that night—with limited eye-contact, standing hunched over and clutching the stapled pages—reinforced this impression of an unassuming, self-effacing man. He seemed, simply, kind.
He read a typically strange and intriguing story (a work in progress) about a boy who was attempting to touch his mouth to every part of his body. When he finished the reading, Wallace positioned himself on a sofa in the refectory lounge where he signed books for a small group of young acolytes and admirers. It would be a stretch to call it a carnival atmosphere, but the mood was far from staid: At one point, a willowy redhead brought her ankle to her mouth and kissed it.
"The Kenyon Review was legendary," Wallace said with elegiac intensity. "It was the first magazine to publish Thomas Pynchon."
Someone wanted to know if he still watched Baywatch, as had been reported in The New York Times. "It's not like I watch it for the boobs," he said.
As a joke, I had him fill out one of the campus dining-service comment cards. In block letters he wrote: "Loved the cod! More breading!" To his signature he added a doodle of a man's face with a long nose.
A couple of students, in a major coup, convinced the novelist to adjourn to The Cove— Kenyon's dingy on-campus bar with a pirate theme. The current editor of The Kenyon Review, acting as Wallace's minder, was visibly apprehensive but nevertheless left Wallace in the potentially volatile charge of students.
Sitting at a long table at the center of the smoke-filled Cove, Wallace ordered a large Coke and took out a stick of gum. Sensitive to our anxieties and aspirations, he talked of how keenly his own students felt the gulf between the published and unpublished. "You're here, probably, because you're interested in writing," he said. "It's a mixed blessing, finding success when you're young. If you aren't published until you're 40, then you've been through the fire."
The conversation turned to the subject of virginity. Hugh Hefner had lost his virginity when he was 24. "So was I," Wallace said. Then he counted on his fingers and corrected himself. He was one year younger than Hefner but older than Sid Vicious, who didn't lose his virginity until he was 18. "The punks wouldn't have sex. They thought sex was ugly," he said.
Wallace insisted on picking up the tab and left a tip which significantly exceeded the bill. The waitress, a Kenyon student, tried to protest. "I'm loaded," he said, practically hurling the bills at her.
Two of us walked him to the bookstore in downtown Gambier. Night had long since fallen, and the guest of honor had forgotten where his accommodations were. Gambier, Ohio, is a tiny, picturesque enclave of white picket fences and looming trees; during the day, the Amish often park their horse-drawn buggies and sell pies, jams and quilts. On that night—save for the light in the bookstore—there were few signs of life. We pointed to the Kenyon Inn at the end of the street. The author thanked us warmly and ambled off into the dark.
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