Though he is best known for his 1,096-page novel, "Infinite Jest," it's his nonfiction that, for me, has always been the most reliable source of awe and pleasure. So when the news came of his death, I absorbed my shock stretched out on the couch reading cover to cover a fairly well-known Wallace work that deserves to be extremely well-known: his chronicle of seven days on the campaign trail during John McCain's 2000 presidential bid.
There has never been a better time to read Wallace on McCain, and not just because McCain is poised to grab the reins of the same world from which Wallace just arranged his own exit. It will make your heart break for just about anyone who runs for president in an Infotainment Age election. Then it will make your heart break for anyone who votes in one.
Originally published in April 2000 in Rolling Stone, the writer's cut later appeared in a 2005 collection and was released in June of this year as a book called "McCain's Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope."
In true Wallace fashion, "McCain's Promise" is about many things -- the social hierarchy of the press corps, the dehumanizing effects of chain hotels -- but it's also (to put the kind of implausibly fine point on it that Wallace would have found irritatingly reductive) about the philosophical conundrum that arises from negative campaigning.
As it happened, Wallace's stint on McCain's campaign bus, the Straight Talk Express, coincided with the week that George W. Bush began a series of brutal attacks against McCain. This was the height of McCain's "maverick" phase, and Wallace, who disclosed that he ultimately did not vote for McCain in the primary, seemed taken by his subject's apparent guilelessness.
"One of the things that makes John McCain's 'causes greater than self-interest' line harder to dismiss," Wallace wrote, "is that this guy also sometimes says things that are manifestly true but which no other mainstream candidate will say."
But then, courtesy of the Bush campaign, misleading ads and anti-McCain "push polls" (surveys that purport to gather information but whose real goal is to disseminate false or misleading information about an opposing candidate) imperil the Straight Talk Express like black ice on the interstate.
Wallace explained McCain's options thusly: "If he does not retaliate, some South Carolina voters will credit McCain for keeping to the high road. But it could also come off as wimpy, and so compromise McCain's image as a tough, take-no-[expletive] guy with the courage to face down the Washington kleptocracy. ... [But] by retaliating ... McCain runs the risk of looking like just another ambitious, win-at-any-cost politician, when of course so much time and effort and money have already gone into casting him as the exact opposite of that."
Wallace was a writer for whom irony was at once a perennial subject and a perennial albatross -- "all U.S. irony is based on an implicit 'I don't really mean what I'm saying,' " he wrote in 1993 -- so I'm a bit loath to state the obvious about what it is like to read "McCain's Promise" as candidate McCain, version 2008, resorts to some of the very tactics that helped bring down McCain version 2000.
But, as Wallace reminded us again and again, obviousness and irony have a way of fusing themselves into a single, often queasy-making entity. And though I don't presume to know what drove Wallace to suicide, it's hard to imagine that, whatever hell he was battling recently, his life wasn't made just a little worse by the relentless banalities-cum-ironies of this campaign.
That's why, for us fans of Wallace as well as those who respected old-school McCain (and you thought never the twain shall meet), this last week was doubly wrenching. We not only have lost an inspirational literary voice, we've lost -- and this is the final verdict, it seems -- a once-inspirational candidate to the blandishments of the low road.