David Wallaceby Martin Riker
After David Wallace’s death, I contributed a very short remembrance to Slate, and the next day Donald Breckenridge emailed to see if I wanted to expand it for the Rail. Actually, the short remembrance was pulled from a few pages I’d written for myself between 5 and 7 a.m. on the Sunday after Wallace’s death. I’d woken up and gone down into the basement where I work, with the idea that I should sketch out the history of my relationship with this man. This short history is what appears below. It is not about his work or his importance as a writer. It’s more about me than about him, and may or may not be interesting or useful to anyone else.
David Foster Wallace was a pen name. It was also the author’s real name but he never went by it. The Foster was his agent’s idea, he said, because Da-vid Wal-lace was syllabically unmemorable. This has proven to be sound marketing advice, although I don’t think David or Dave Wallace was ever very comfortable with it. He was deeply skeptical of all contemporary mythologies, particularly the ones about himself.
I first encountered David Foster Wallace when I was working as a musician on a cruise ship. His essay “Shipping Out” came out in Harper’s (later published in book form as “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”) and my Canadian girlfriend on the ship had been mailed a copy. She loved it; I did not. I thought it was smug, and I was unconvinced of its accuracy. My response was: What the hell does this guy know? He spends a week or two on a cruise ship then proclaims that the whole experience is unspeakably horrible, when in fact it is so much worse than that. I sometimes tell this story as a joke. I think I even told it to Dave Wallace as a joke. But it’s also accurate to how I felt at the time.
Move up a couple of years and I’d been living in New York and was now leaving, and a coworker from my secretarial job—a very nice person named Kathryn who was finishing her MFA in creative writing at NYU—gave me her copy of Infinite Jest. I was moving to central Illinois to do the masters degree in Creative Writing at the school where David was teaching, so that must have been why she was giving me the book. I remember her hoisting it up like a sack of bricks and saying, You might as well take it, I don’t think I’m going to read it any time soon.
I went to Pittsburgh, then, where I spent a transitional month in a friend’s living room. He’d just gotten divorced and welcomed the company, and I was tired of New York and wanted to get some writing and reading done before I continued west to Illinois. I’m a slow reader, and it took me the entire month sitting in that living room to read Infinite Jest. It was overwhelming, existentially exhausting. In terms of its writing, I was deeply intimidated by it, and consoled myself with the knowledge that I was not going to central IL to study with David Foster Wallace, or anyone else, I was going in order to be near Dalkey Archive Press.
My first class, however, was a creative writing workshop with Professor David Wallace. In retrospect this was amazing luck, since he didn’t teach many graduate workshops. The first day he passed out a piece of paper with some get-to-know-you questions, and one of the questions was, How did you get interested in creative writing? We went around and read them and he went first. He said, As a junior in college a teacher had me read Donald Barthelme’s story “The Balloon” and I realized this was something incredible that fiction could do. I started laughing after he’d read this and he said, Do you know that story? I said, My own answer that I’ve written to this question reads, and then I read my answer, which was identical to his, down to the year in college I’d read the Barthelme story.
I can’t recall every incident or everything he ever said in class or after. What comes to mind is the one time he brought his own writing to class. It was a very short piece that later appeared as the frontispiece to Brief Interviews: “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life.” He passed it around and wanted to know what we made of it. We tried to say smart things but it was obvious none of us knew what he was getting at. He even gave a hint. He said it had something to do with the word “radically,” which means something beyond simply “highly” or “very,” it also suggests “to the side of.” If I understand correctly what he was getting at, then the paragraphs I’m writing now are a radically condensed history of David Foster Wallace.
He quickly became an important teacher for me, always very generous with his time and intelligence. He was an exceptional listener, probably the best listener I’ve known. The kind of person who can walk into a room full of heart surgeons and walk out twenty minutes later able to perform bypass surgery or, at least, describe the procedure convincingly. I did my master’s thesis with him, and then for years he continued to mail me long letters in tiny handwriting about the work that I’d send him. He once sent me one of his own stories, with the hope that I could return the favor. It was one of the stories that would later be published in Oblivion and there was something in it I couldn’t figure out. I sent him four pages trying to describe what I couldn’t understand in the story. I’m generally a good editor, but this letter wasn’t very helpful or good. I was nervous. I choked, basically.
I do not feel bad that we talked about my writing so much more than we talked about his. That was his decision. He liked talking about writing, and for the most part he did not like talking about his own.
The last time I saw him in person was just before he left for Pomona. I was dog-sitting in the countryside for John O’Brien and Dave brought his own two dogs out to play with John’s, and we sat on a porch swing and talked about writing and life. He said there are plenty of mediocre writers who are able to make careers for themselves, and that’s fine, but what’s tragic are the few really promising writers who give up before they ever publish anything. That’s the only thing I remember from what he said even though I doubt it is any more interesting than any of the other things he said. I remember one thing I said to him, which was that his intelligence and generosity were not the only things he had to offer students, and that I personally had gained a great deal simply from knowing him as a human being. I said that coming to think of him as Dave Wallace rather than David Foster Wallace was actually very important for me. It realigned my sense of what matters.
After he left John’s house I got a phone call from him, he was very shaken up. He’d hit a deer on the road leading back to town and he asked me to grab some flashlights and come out there because the deer had stumbled into the high grass and it was too dark to see. He was hoping we could find it and that there would be something he could do. I got out there and we looked but it was a long road and he wasn’t sure where he’d hit it. He’d had to run the dogs home and he’d just come back. We searched for a while, and then a truck with a floodlight came by and the man inside asked what we were looking for. I told him and he started searching farther down the road. Dave was skeptical and said he didn’t think the man’s interest was in helping the deer, he thought he was a hunter, which ended up being true. But he found the deer, and we both ran over to it. The deer was alive but its hind leg was broken in half, irreparably. It was a horrible sight, and I don’t think he wanted to cry in front of me, but he did anyway. He said, “Tonight I have been a bad human being.” So that was the last time I saw him.
In recent years, we’d talked about life more than writing. I say “talked” but it was mostly postcards and email. He and I both got married in the same month. I was living in Denver at the time, doing a PhD, but later returned to work for Dalkey Archive, which is now located in Champaign-Urbana, IL, the town where he grew up. I think his parents still live here although I’ve never met them. For a while certain parts of this town seemed to have the ghosts of Wallace and his various characters walking around them. He must have played on that tennis court, etc. That went away as I started to make my own life here.
Urbana is not a large town, and it turns out that the house my wife and I bought is next to the public high school he attended. In our last email exchange, I tried to describe to him where my house is located in relation to the school and the nearby park. He said he thought he’d dated a girl who lived here, but I suspect he was thinking of a different house.
Two days ago I sent him a bundle of Dalkey Archive books with a note mentioning that my wife and I are pregnant, and saying that he and I should catch up soon. Then last night I learned that he’d died the night before.
Martin Riker is the Associate Director of Dalkey Archive Press.