A Cult of Cool : He's the object of a trend so strong it borders on obsession. David Foster Wallace's book has struck a chord with Gen Xers and others.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Nobody sets out to be a literary groupie. You just read something you like, tell all your friends and hope to get some credit for discovery in a hip, high-brow way.

Problem comes when tastes converge. It's highly embarrassing, not to mention cruelly ironic, when the same writer strikes a critical mass of people--especially people in your demographic group--and you find that you've not so much unveiled a new voice as perpetrated a fad.

This literary season, among the artsy smartsy Gen X crowd, David Foster Wallace has touched off something of a craze. To be sure, everybody's feeling a bit sheepish about it at this point (groupiness being particularly mortifying if you've spent your entire adult life eschewing things trendy and pop). Nonetheless, the ranks of Wallace fans are growing. A throng is piling up.

How this happened is not so hard to understand. In the late '80s, Wallace wrote two books--"The Girl with Curious Hair" (Avon, 1991) and "The Broom in the System" (Avon, 1993). Both were obscure but well-reviewed enough to land advance copies of his recent third effort, "Infinite Jest" (Little Brown), on all the right reviewers' desks.

Little Brown's whiz-bang PR department had a hand in this, to be sure. But about the same time--January 1996--Harper's published "Shipping Out," Wallace's hilarious shakedown of a luxury Caribbean cruise, which unleashed such a frenzy of faxing and photocopying that certain persons--well-educated writer types in their late 20s--report having been sent copies by friends three, four and five times. Cut to mid-February: "Infinite Jest" comes out, glowing reviews roll in. More than a few Wallace junkies start showing up at his readings. These folks are not the lone zealots they may wish themselves to be. They're part of a--gag, achh, ahem--trend.

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While the mechanics of Wallace's popularity are plain, the underlying question--what's this guy's appeal?--is a more intricate matter to resolve.

Of course the man's talented. Also frighteningly smart, insightful, funny and humane. But when tastes converge into fad, it's often telling to take a closer look.

On the ninth day of Wallace's 10-day book tour, the fourth of five reporters that day, I met up with the author in Chicago's Omni Hotel. Books were strewn on the floor. Rummaged-through duffel bags littered the bed. Wallace himself was turned out in black shoes, black jeans, light blue turtleneck and his signature head hankie.

For a few minutes he made faux ingenue protestations ("You get to ask me all these questions that, normally, you would never get to ask unless we were good friends") and attended to personal hygiene ("This is the time of day Little Brown says I can pee"). Then Wallace sat himself down in a wingback chair, lit a cigarette and held forth.

" 'Infinite Jest' was really just supposed to be sad," he said, pulling on his smoke and holding it in. "I don't know what it's like for you and your friends, but I know that most of my friends are real unhappy. We're all these white, upper-middle-class people with jobs that are in the upper one-millionth percent in terms of interestingness and income. And we're all--or most of us at least--in these real weird addictive desperate unhappy relationships with things that are ostensibly pleasurable."

Talking with Wallace is a little unsettling. He simultaneously sounds both flip and sincere. By his own admission, he's a recovering smart-aleck (as well as a recovering alcoholic, drug-abuser and TV-head). And over the course of the afternoon, Wallace traded his smokes for Skoal, and between some very frequent, very gross spitting in a glass ashtray, he tossed off quirky details from his life:

* Wallace subscribes to Cosmo. ("There's something about reading, 'You've Cheated. Should You Tell?' six or seven times a year that's just fundamentally soothing to the nervous system.")

* He writes at Denny's. (They're open late and they let him spit.)

* He reads to his dog, Jeeves. ("It's not that he can tell me to add a semicolon or anything, but he can hear something in my voice when I lose interest.")

* He's twice failed the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, the first step toward entering the Catholic Church. (Wallace apparently referred to "the cult of personality surrounding Jesus Christ," which did not sit well with the priest.)

At 34, Wallace has done much soul-searching on matters of addiction, obsession and the disturbing American tendency to pleasure ourselves to death. And it's this emotional grist, as Jay McInerney noted, that makes "Infinite Jest" "something more than an interminable joke."

"It seems like the human animal has this need to give itself away to something," Wallace said, slowing his speech down and fiddling with his watch. "It's like a religious impulse. You think: Something is more important than me. I give myself away to it. It will take care of me in some very broad, general kind of way."

With that, reporter No. 5 called up from the lobby. Wallace excused himself to void his spent tobacco somewhere out of sight. And what I was left with--besides some annoyance with all the spit--was an eerie sense that Wallace had displayed exactly what his readers would want to see. He's the emotional wit, the hipster artist, the man more extraordinary and more normal than you could ever hope to be.

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Back in New York, hub of things literary, Wallace's editors show varying degrees of surprise that the guy is hitting it big. Some, like Gerald Howard, editor of two earlier books, maintained a decade-long faith in Wallace's "absolute genius." Others confess to doubts along the way.

Take, for instance, Michael Pietsch, editor of "Infinite Jest," self-proclaimed "ferocious admirer" of Wallace's work, who by his own admission has suffered more Wallace-related panic attacks than he would care to admit.

Upon reading an early section of the book, Pietsch admits, he had "no clue how the characters connected except they were either doing drugs or playing tennis."

When the 1,800-page manuscript came in--he'd been told it was running "long"--he was fairly shocked to learn "how long 'long' could be." Even after trimming the beast of 800 pages, Pietsch still harbored "major concerns" as to whether readers would be willing to give Wallace a month, minimum, of book time.

"By the end, David was addressing his letters to Eyestrain Pietsch," Pietsch recounted over the phone. "It was very lonely and frightening, because everybody's initial response was always: 'A 1,000-page book, are you kidding?' "

Once Pietsch changed his mind-set, however--started thinking "the bigness is part of what it is"--he brandished his blue pencil with more expectation and less fear. Pietsch knew readers in their 20s and 30s had unsurpassable energy. He knew young wordies ached for a serious, imaginative writing upon which to turn their zeal.

"Suddenly it became clear that we had to make it a challenge: 'Are you reader enough for this book?' We had to turn it into a dare: 'Have you finished David Foster Wallace's gargantuan masterpiece?' "

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Readers have been buying his $30, 3-pound, 3-ounce book, despite, as John Updike has noted, its being ergonomically incorrect. Critics have been calling "Infinite Jest" "the 'Naked Lunch' of the '90s" and tagging him as "the next Pynchon" or just plain "genius" more times than can possibly be good for his head.

The Wallace frenzy, it must be said, had a spooky fin d'siecle feel. The Atlantic Monthly's Sven Birkerts voiced it first, writing "['Infinite Jest'] has internalized some of the decentering energies that computer technologies have released into our midst."

But--and this is more ominous--in his pre-apocalyptic, center-will-not-hold sentiments Birkerts is not alone. From a slacker-fan in New Orleans--who, not coincidentally, is a big fan of the Unabomber's Manifesto--I heard: "Our generation's job may be to dismantle things (they will come apart of their own volition, but in discordant ways), and Wallace shows us how to do it with care, scholarliness and the correct metaphors."

From a New York woman with a searing crush on Wallace: "The plot lines don't come together. Things don't converge. And when do they, really? It's sort of high time to admit that things don't make sense in the end."

It gets a little twisted. Wallace shows us the sad state we're in; we love him for it. This is the stuff of good fiction, no doubt. But at his Chicago reading, Wallace's theme of obsession got played out in a disarmingly real-world way.

The venue was Barbara's Bookstore. A Peavey amp set up out front lent an expectant, celebrified feel. As Wallace read, his listeners nodded. As Wallace took questions, his answers were accepted with humble, reverent faith. When the show was over, fans formed a long line, waiting with heavy bundles to get their fat tomes signed. And while Wallace seemed deserving of praise, the scene called to mind religion and the dire American willingness to give ourselves away.

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