[Originally published on November 7, 2008.]
In 1987, Bill Katovsky wrote the following article, surely one of the first, and most endearing, profiles of David Foster Wallace. It ran in that year’s April issue of Katovsky’s now-defunct national literary magazine, Arrival, and is reprinted here with his permission.
David Wallace is kneeling in the hallway, like a golfer lining up a putt. He taps a Marlboro Light on his gray cords, then lights it. Before the cigarette reaches his mouth again, one of his students, a girl, tanned, chunky, with a thick mane of honey-blond hair, approaches him.
“I can’t take class Thursday,” she says.
From his vantage point, he’s eyeball to crotch, so he stands up, the cigarette still several inches from his lips. “Can you say that again?” he asks.
“I can’t make it on Thursday. I think I’ve come down with bronchitis.” The silver bracelets encircling both wrists jangle, clank unmusically, as she brushes her bangs off her forehead. English 210, Introduction to Writing Fiction, will start shortly.
“Yeah, I’ve not been feeling too good myself,” he says. “I just got over viral pneumonia. Everyone seems to be coming down with valley fever.”
“Valley fever—a fungus in the desert soil that’s airborne.” He coughs.
She fidgets, uncertain. She strokes her bangs again. “Will it hurt my grade if I don’t show up for class?”
He stares at her, frowning.
“I’m s’posed to be at the airport real early the next day to catch a flight to Hawaii.”
“It’s a 5-in-the-morning flight.” She’s holding a jumbo plastic tumbler filled with a cola. There’s writing on one side of the cup: I’m a material girl—diamonds are a girl’s best friend.
“I’m afraid I just don’t understand. You’re going to Hawaii? Talk to me inside the classroom.” The Marlboro never makes it home to his lips. He pinches it cold and tosses it into the wastebasket as he walks into the room.
They talk quietly at his desk while the rest of the class straggles in. Desks are rearranged to form a semicircle. One student erases conjugations of French verbs from the blackboard.
It’s mid-March and 85 degrees outside. Most of the students are dressed in shorts, T-shirts, sandals, tank tops. Tall, pale, reed-thin with a fledgling beard, David sports a long-sleeved red-striped Brooksgate button-down shirt and partially laced Timberland hunting boots—probably the only such pair in attendance at the University of Arizona.
He reads from his green attendance book.
“Stephanie hasn’t vanished? Stephanie has red hair?”
“Where is everybody?”
“She should be here, she was in my poly-sci class,” offers Material Girl.
A murmur of relief washes through the room.
“I see George is AWOL—he’ll get shit.”
Twenty students are here, and for the next hour and a half they analyze two short stories written by their classmates. David guides the undergraduate workshop like a seasoned pro, dissecting, explicating, outlining the stories’ failings and strong points. “When you write fiction,” he explains as part of his critique of a story about a young girl, her uncle, and the evil eye, “you are telling a lie. It’s a game, but you must get the facts straight. The reader doesn’t want to be reminded that it’s a lie. It must be convincing, or the story will never take off in the reader’s mind.”
Witty, engaging, thoughtful, and illuminating, David leads his charges through the brambles and thickets of literary theory. With the exception of the Material Girl and George, who arrives late and is reprimanded for reading a newspaper, the students are enthralled, lively, paying rapt attention, for when it comes right down to assessing his teaching wizardry the University of Arizona recently named the 25-year-old instructor Teaching Assistant of the Year.
Toward the end of class, he looks spent, like a race car about to run out of fuel. He fishes a toothpick from his short pocket and lets it droop, unmoving, from the left corner of his mouth.
A bell in the hallway sputters.
“I usually puke my guts out in the bathroom when class ends,” he later admits. We are in the cafeteria. “I guess I’m really a shy sort of person. I hate to be the center of attention.” He decides on a thick wedge of Boston cream pie—speedballing with sugar.
We chat about other matters. Like being the author of The Broom of the System, which has spearheaded Viking’s new series on contemporary American fiction. The novel, penned as his 1,100-page senior thesis at Amherst College, is the product of a wild and gifted imagination. Set in Cleveland, Ohio, in the year 1990, The Broom revolves around Lenore Beadsman., a confused 24-year-old telephone operator and her desperate search for her great-grandmother, a protégé of Wittgenstein who has inexplicably vanished from a Shaker Heights nursing home owned by her father’s baby-food company. Along the way, we meet a cast of hilariously limned characters: an obese man, Norman Bombardini, whose sole mission in life is to fill the world with his corpulent self, which, of course, entails eating as much as he can; Lenore’s foulmouthed pet cockatiel; her one-legged brother, nicknamed the Antichrist, who hangs out at Amherst, where he tutors friends on meaty subjects like Hegel in exchange for pot, which he stashes in a drawer in his prosthesis; and her boyfriend, Rick Vigorous, an inveterate raconteur whose compulsive need to tell macabre tales is his way of masking the shame of being impotent.
The Broom’s multilayered narrative structure and excessively anti-minimalist style bring to mind the metafictional playground of Thomas Pynchon and Robert Coover. The book, joyously alive, is certainly not an easy or quick read. The challenge to the reader is wading through densely written passages that touch upon metaphysical conundrums, language games, theories of the self, and tantalizing antimonies such as “the barber who shaves all and only those who do not shave themselves.” But balancing his heady philosophizing is a playfulness of intent rooted in pop culture. Where else in fiction do we find a Gilligan’s Isle theme bar replete with palm trees and cloddish bartenders in sailor hats who are paid to bumble about and spill drinks?
“My great horror for the last year is that Viking is going to take a bath on me,” says Wallace. He lights the first of a seemingly endless succession of cigarettes. “They picked up The Broom of the System at an auction for $20,000. I thought it was going to be the Heaven’s Gate of the publishing industry.” He corrects himself. “Well, at the time, it seemed like a lot of money to me.”
Twenty grand for a first novel, plus a spate of favorable reviews, including one from the literary doyenne of the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani, well, that doesn’t strike one as too shabby for a graduate student still grinding out short stories in Arizona’s prestigious MFA program. “There is a lopsided emphasis in writing programs on hermetic fiction,” he says, "with the mechanicalness of craft, technique, and point of view, as opposed to the more occult or spiritual side of writing—taking joys in the process of creation.
“I’m not interested in fiction that’s only worried about capturing reality in an artful way. What pisses me off about so much fiction these days is that it’s just boring, especially the young fiction coming out of the East Coast that’s designed to appeal to the stereotypical yuppies, with an emphasis on fashion, celebrities, and materialism.”
He pauses, realizing he’s been lecturing. “Uh,” he adds with a self-deprecating shrug, “what do I know?” After all, these are just the opinions of a 25-year-old. “I don’t claim to have any special insights into anything that’s going on.” I’m looking for a trace of sham, of disingenuousness, in his voice, but it’s nowhere to be found.
He grew up as an academic brat. His father is a philosophy professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his mother teaches rhetoric at a local community college. "It was an exceptional academic household. I remember my parents reading Ulysses out loud to each other when they went to bed. My father read Moby-Dick to my younger sister and me when we were 6 and 8. There was a near rebellion halfway through the novel. Here we were—still picking our noses—and learning the etymology of whale names.
“Later, in high school, competitive tennis and lusting after girls were pretty much my entire existence. Though college changed all that around.” He graduated in 1985 from Amherst with a double major in English and Philosophy—and with the highest GPA in his class. His senior philosophy thesis, he claims, had nothing to do with writing. “It offered a solution in how to deal with semantics and physical modalities concerning Aristotle’s sea battle. If it is now true that there will be a sea battle tomorrow, is a sea battle necessary tomorrow? If it is now false, is a sea battle impossible tomorrow? It’s a way to deal with propositions in the future tense in modal logic, since what is physically possible at a certain time is weird because one has to distinguish the time of the possibility of the event from the possibility of the time of the event.”
After graduation, he turned down an opportunity to study philosophy at Harvard and was lured west by a fellowship in the writing program at the University of Arizona, which he selected over Iowa and Johns Hopkins.
“Writing fiction takes me out of time,” he explains. “I sit down and the clock will not exist for me for a few hours. That’s probably as close to immortal as we’ll ever get. I’m scared of sounding pretentious because anyone who writes fiction is saying, ‘Look at this thing I’ve written.’”
All that is left of his pie is the graham-cracker crust, which he mashes against the plate with his fork. Before he gets up from the table, he decides to make another stab at explaining what he hopes to accomplish as a writer. “I spent a lot of time as a volunteer in a nursing home in Amherst last summer. I was reading Dante’s Divine Comedy to an old man, Mr. Shulman. One day, I asked him where he was from. He said, ‘Just east of here, the Rockies.’ I said, ‘Mr. Shulman, the Rockies are west of here.’ He did a voilà with his hands and then said, ‘I move mountains.’ That stuck with me. Fiction either moves mountains or it’s boring; it moves mountains or it sits on its ass.”