On April 15—Tax Day, by a meaningful and by no means accidental coincidence—Little, Brown will publish David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King. It is whispered in writer-type circles that the book killed Wallace, and indeed getting the huge, unwieldy but always fascinating thing as far as he did clearly cost him emotionally and physically.
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Yet, of course, David killed himself, and for many reasons that we can probably only begin to fathom.
I knew him slightly, 20-odd years ago, when I was working as an editor at the University of Arizona and he was enrolled there in the graduate program in creative writing. It was clear to me, talking over coffee or beer, that he was suffering from some unspecified but productive angst—productive because it fueled the all-night, sometimes multiday bouts of writing for which he was already becoming known, unspecified because David did not talk about his troubles, stoical believer in the redemptive powers of hard work that he was.
It was also clear that his fellow students and even some of the faculty—notably a very senior and very eminent philosopher who shall remain nameless—were scared silly of him. They had cause to be. For one thing, David was the kind of person who would look you up and down over that beer or coffee and then pull out a notebook to render his judgment—also a habit, I’m told, of the late sociologist Erving Goffman, who took pall-casting notes at parties but was invited to them all the same.
For another thing, David outworked everyone, faculty and students alike. And, another fact, his prodigious talent was well evident. David, his classmates seem to have understood, would publish more in a year than most of them would in a long career of grading papers and leading workshops, and moreover, he would be remembered for his work long after theirs had faded into the sameness of that year’s influences—at the time, Raymond Carver, with lashings of Richard Ford and a civilizing leavening of Louise Erdrich.
Yet he would go on to do that grading and workshopping and teaching as well and apparently would be well liked for it. (For a taste of his approach, see an example in this syllabus.) David would live the MFA’s dream by being discovered before even leaving the academy—he was scarcely out the door with degree in hand when The Broom of the System appeared in 1987, soon to be taught in classrooms nationwide.
Back at his alma mater, subsequent cohorts of creative-writing candidates were given David as an aspirational example, if one whose success was probably impossible to reproduce. “We talked about him,” says Dan Stolar, a 1994 graduate of the program. “Everybody knew who he was. Everybody knew that he had been here, like Richard Russo”—Russo being another notable Arizona student who left his own students and classmates far behind with the publication of books such as Empire Falls and Nobody’s Fool a decade earlier.
David was off and running, too. I heard from him just once after he left Arizona, a postcard of greeting that arrived in my mailbox about the time I was leaving the university to pursue my own writing. Like so many others, I followed his work at a distance, pleased and surprised at his trickster success. Like so many others, I was astonished by his sad end—and, like so many others, somewhat puzzled by the industry that now surrounds publishing his work from beyond the grave, books that number not just The Pale King but also his senior honors thesis, a philosophical treatise called Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will. More books will doubtless follow.
In his collection of essays A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David wrote of an aspiring tennis champion, “He will say he is happy and mean it. Wish him well.” He meant his words, and there was never a false note to them. And though I never heard him profess to be so, I hope he found himself happy, at least from time to time, while he was still in this mortal plane. It seems proper to wish him well now, Tax Day and all.