BLOOMINGTON — Now gone (he took his own life in California in 2008), David Foster Wallace was the world-acclaimed author of “Infinite Jest,” a sprawling, 1,079-page fictional opus of an age, about the pursuit of happiness in America and our fascination with TV and electronic entertainment.
Esquire called it “a work of genius.”
The New York Times chimed: “The greatest novel to finish a century yet.” Time and Newsweek ran photos of him.
When “Infinite Jest” was hitting full stride in the late ’90s, Wallace was on the cover of “Details,” featured in “Rolling Stone,” appeared twice on “Charlie Rose” and turned down “Today” and David Letterman because he abhorred being turned into a celebrity.
Largely unknown is that Wallace, then an Illinois State University English instructor, wrote most of it while living in Bloomington.
“This is really where he did all his major work,” says Charlie Harris, a retired ISU English professor and department head who in 1993 hired Wallace, who taught at ISU until 2002. “This is where he found his best years.”
Private, reclusive, an introvert who fancied himself as “everyday” and even on national TV wore a well-perspired bandana, scraggly jeans and straggly hair, Wallace looked more like the guy who might clean Stevenson Hall than teach there.
Internationally popular but in Bloomington-Normal all but anonymous, Wallace ate breakfast regularly at the Denny’s on Oakland Avenue. One of his books is even dedicated to Denny’s.
He loved Cracker Barrel. When international literary agents flew into town, trying to dine him, he’d pass on a Biaggi’s or Lancasters and instead meet them on Brock Drive, at Cracker Barrel, over meatloaf and a potato.
Now a book about Wallace is getting raves as well, written by New Yorker magazine writer D.T. (Daniel) Max, who spent two years (including almost a month in B-N) researching Wallace.
The book’s title is “Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life Of David Foster Wallace.” The 356-page biography is insightful but not voyeuristic, thorough but not over-cooked. It covers Wallace’s life from his birth in Ithaca, N.Y., his upbringing in Urbana (after both of his parents became University of Illinois professors), his writings, his eccentricities, his insecurities, his addictions to marijuana and women, his 25-year battle with depression. It ultimately stretches to his death in 2008 when, while in California teaching at a private college, trying to wean himself from drugs for depression but discovering he could not write without them, he stepped out onto his home’s patio one night with a rope, leaving on a nearby desk a neat stack of notes and 200 pages of a manuscript for a book he was working on but couldn’t finish.
He was 46.
Max’s book is an especially interesting read in Bloomington-Normal — he interviewed more than 30 Twin Citians, from those at ISU who taught with him, to associates from an Alcoholics Anonymous chapter that met at St. Matthew’s Church on East Oakland, to students at ISU and the women with whom he cohabitated while here.
“It’s strange to be reading a biography and suddenly you are part of it,” says Kymberly Harris, one of Wallace’s loves, now living in Los Angeles, an actress who until a few months ago ran a theater school in Bloomington.
Wallace was always a non-conformist.
As a child, instead of a pie at a bakery, he convinced his family to substitute “3.14159” (pi) when referring to it.
As a teen, while a member of the Urbana High School tennis team, he became mortified of mosquitoes, especially of their buzzing, and did not like playing tennis at dusk.
To brush his teeth and gargle took him 45 minutes, says Max, because he was so intent on perfection. At his Bloomington home, along Woodrig Road, Wallace painted one room entirely black. He papered another room with manuscript pages.
He wrote his books long-hand, only later to have them transcribed onto a computer. “I remember we were all on a plane to New York,” says Charlie Harris. “It was the actual trip when David took his manuscript of ‘Infinite Jest.’ The box he had was huge and it had to be. He had more than 2,000 pages of hand-written manuscript that day.”
As for his works themselves, they were like those movies loved by critics but put down by the everyday reader who had to ask, “Wow, what is this all about?”
Yet, they also turned him into a rock star.
His students at ISU found him “fascinating.” Even after classroom hours, they would meet him at The Coffeehouse in Normal or at one of Wallace’s favorite B-N haunts, Babbitt’s Books.
Once “Infinite Jest” became a literary topic around the world (as an example, at the famous “Shakespeare & Co.” bookstore in Paris, Wallace’s books still have their own table), students began enrolling at ISU just so they could take a creative writing class taught by Wallace.
One weekend in 2000, an entire van-load of students from the University of Chicago arrived in Bloomington on a scavenger hunt, a requirement of which was to get a picture with Wallace. (No one succeeded — Wallace either was not available or refused to answer the door.)
As for Max, to celebrate his own work, he comes back to the Twin Cities this week, to do a reading at 7 p.m. Friday at The Coffeehouse in uptown, then across the street to Babbitt’s Books.
“I loved Bloomington,” says Max, who lives in New Jersey. “I ate at many of your restaurants and really fell in love with the town. I’ve also never seen corn fields like that.”
On a book tour of big-city stops (New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, Chicago, Brooklyn ...), Max himself did not want to exclude the place where, in his 46 years of life, Wallace found calm, a good work environment and ultimately what may have been his only true happiness.
“He didn’t want to be that guy, the person who is a big public figure,” says Charlie Harris. “He just wanted to write. That was his love. He didn’t want to be a famous writer. And yet he was.”
Coincidentally, in death, now even more.
What: Book reading and question/answer period by D.T. Max, author of “Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace”
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: The Coffeehouse, 114 E. Beaufort St., Normal
Additional event: Light refreshments, book signing at Babbitt’s Books at 8 p.m. Friday.
Further information: Babbitt’s Books; 309-454-7393