A version of David Foster Wallace's life

When the great English poet Philip Larkin worked at the University of Hull, he liked to say that the need to change trains in Doncaster meant most journalists, academics and other London irritants didn't bother to harass him.

The American writer David Foster Wallace — the subject of D.T. Max's exhaustively detailed and thoroughly compelling new biography, "Every Love Story is a Ghost Story" — never had Larkin's total contentment in provincial anonymity. Wallace was too restless a soul with too great an appetite for sex and drugs, and those pursuits — even for a writer who becomes very famous at a very young age — required at least a modest amount of travel away from the Midwest.


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But Wallace, the author of such fiction as "The Pale King," "Girl With Curious Hair" and the masterful "Infinite Jest," not to mention mesmerizing magazine articles on everything from cruise ships to John McCain to the porn industry (quite the trifecta), surely was a product of living, as he put it, "blissfully ignorant of most of the Red Hot Center's various roars and hisses."

In his early life, Champaign-Urbana was Wallace's Hull, a place where his loving parents would (before their marriage went south) lie in bed "holding hands, reading 'Ulysses' to each other," and where a mother upset by the behavior of her son did not have to shout but could just slip a note under his bedroom door, and he could write one back in return.

After an earnestly wonkish childhood (one telling anecdote, recounted by Max, is that his entire family once decided to all say "3.14159," every time the word "pie" came up in conversation), Wallace's educational odyssey took him to Amherst and Arizona. He liked the desert light, but much of Wallace's most productive work was done while teaching (beginning in 1993) at Illinois State University in Bloomington-Normal, where "my best kids are farm-kids who didn't even know they liked to read until I persuaded them that they did," Wallace wrote to Alice Turner.

In the end, Wallace didn't stick at ISU — where he once was the object of a University of Chicago scavenger hunt that required students to take their picture with him, Max reveals. Nobody could find him. He might have intentionally ignored the Red Hot Center's roars and hisses, but that did not mean he did not crave that center's royalty checks, nor stop himself from bristling at the barbs of its critics (we hear of his emotional devastation after a New York Times review that was mostly positive).

Aside from the gently cryptic title, "Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace," Max, a writer for The New Yorker, mostly resists the temptation of sexing up the form of his Wallace study. It must have been tempting. Wallace, after all, was a guy who constantly struggled to be at the center of his own story, whatever that story might be, and whose death by suicide at age 46 was as deftly crafted as his writing.

One of Wallace's lives could be seen as a relationship-killing story of addiction to booze and drugs, ranging from the prescription brand names to the marijuana that was a fixture of the 1970s teenage life in Champaign. Another could be a life of a great intellect undermined by depression, treated poorly. And yet another could be that of a natural ironist who was simultaneously deeply uncomfortable with irony, having been brought up in the Midwest. One could imagine all kinds of wacky ways to describe his life and times.

Actually, though, Max's authorial voice is strikingly matter of fact, even clinical in spots, and yet sophisticated enough for the reader to sometimes discern the irony in the lack thereof. The author dug his way through a plethora of interviews with, it feels, pretty much everyone of significance who encountered Wallace and remained alive. He clearly read a large number of Wallace's notes and letters (Wallace left a formidable paper trail), and he reconstructs the chronology of his life at a steady, slightly removed pace, although you certainly feel the subject's life thudding to its rough conclusion, which is described in much the same astringent detail as the rest of his odyssey.

The deeper insights about Wallace are presented, in most cases, with the same level of import as everything else. But allowing the reader some sense of discovery feels right, given the subject.

Take, for example, Wallace's seismic shift (which Max argues only gathered strength across the years) from irreverent bad-boy parodist to nostalgist and evangelist of sincerity. Here's what Max quotes Wallace as saying: "The next literary 'rebels' in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of 'anti-rebels,' born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction." When you read that, it's not so surprising to also read that Wallace voted for Ronald Reagan.

You can take a man out of the Midwest, not that this particular man ever really left, but the flatland's identity pulls you back in. In Wallace's case, the facts assembled so carefully by Max seem to suggest, the pull of sober earnestness against drunken literary insurgency gave Wallace his crucial bite — and hastened his untimely end.

Chris Jones is the Tribune's theater critic and a Sunday arts columnist.

"Every Love Story is a Ghost Story"

By D.T. Max, Viking, 356 pages, $27.95

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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