“A typical case of a small-town boy who betrayed his roots”: David Foster Wallace as a Midwestern writer

[Chicago Reader]

In this week’s Chicago Reader, I’ve got a long review-essay on David Foster Wallace. The review part centers on Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, D. T. Max’s new biography of the author, and the book is just OK. Still, it let me explore Wallace’s relationship to the Midwest  — that’s the essay part — and I hope readers find it intriguing and persuasive.

Now, I could go on about this stuff all day — about how Max’s book corroborates Jonathan Franzen’s essay on Wallace’s inner ugly side; or about how much I’ve come to respect the work of David Lipsky, who consistently got the best quotations out of Wallace (and whose reporting Max relies on relentlessly). But I’ll limit myself to one final aspect of Wallace and the Midwest, and that’s how the region responded to his own writing about it.

The best example comes in the reaction to Wallace’s Harper’s essay on the Illinois State Fair. (You can find a .pdf here.) An editor at the magazine had heard about Wallace moving back to Illinois, and he called the novelist — his U-Haul was still sitting in the drive-way — and pitched him the idea of reporting on the 1993 State Fair. Out of this assignment sprang the nonfiction style that Wallace would later describe to Lipsky as “basically, you know, welcome to my mind for twenty pages. See through my eyes.”

The essay came out the next summer, and it was pure Wallace  — funny, intellectual, empathetic. But most local readers didn’t see it that way. In fact, in a column that ran in Springfield’s State Journal-Register, Toby McDaniel blasted Wallace and his “poison pen.” The State Fair’s organizers were even more outraged, and McDaniel quoted Joe Khayyat, a fair spokesman, at length:

There are so many inaccuracies and inconsistencies in this story, it really doesn’t deserve a response. In fact, the only thing the author seems to be consistent with is his gross misrepresentation of the fair and his use of profanity. It’s a typical case of a small-town boy who betrayed his roots when the big city went to his head.

This defense gets deployed any time a Midwestern author produces non-brochure copy about the Midwest, and Wallace’s essay proves how wrong it is. So too does his response to Khayyat and McDaniel. In the State Journal-Register‘s second story on the affair, which ran a few weeks later, a different reporter, Mike Matulis, asked Wallace for his side. “To be perfectly honest with you, Khayyat’s comments bother me,” Wallace told him. “If the piece came off that way, as some one sneering at the Midwest, then that’s really a deficiency in the piece. It really wasn’t meant to do that.”

For the rest of the story, Wallace praised the State Fair — “There is an intensity about the livestock shows that is the same intensity you see in Lincoln Center” — and the state itself.  “It’s incredibly cheap to live here, and I haven’t heard a car alarm since I moved,” he told Matulis. “I’m not kidding.” Wallace was only getting warmed up: “People smile and say ‘hello,’ I don’t have to lock my house every day and women sometimes walk at night by themselves. And when there is a ghastly murder here, it’s an enormous deal.”

He ended the interview by reaffirming his affection for the Midwest: “My resting pulse rate is lower here. It’s really very nice.” And yet, as late as 2010, the State Journal-Register was still smarting about Wallace’s essay. It’s a colorful and, I think, telling episode about Wallace’s personality and his relationship to readers. But while Max includes some interesting details about the accuracy of Wallace’s nonfiction (“We quietly agreed that his nonfiction was fanciful and his fiction was what you had to look out for,” Wallace’s sister tells him), he never mentions this little State Fair dust up. Nor does he examine the way Wallace’s journalism evolved from “welcome to my mind” to the intensely rhetorical style of his later pieces. These are just a couple examples of why Every Love Story is a Ghost Story is a disappointment, both in terms of its details and its interpretations.

About Craig Fehrman

Craig Fehrman is a Ph.D. student in Yale’s English department and a freelance writer. He's working on a book about presidents and their books [more] . . .
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2 Responses to “A typical case of a small-town boy who betrayed his roots”: David Foster Wallace as a Midwestern writer

  1. Peter Witte says:

    I really enjoyed your Wallace piece in the Reader. I thought that it was very sharp and insightful, well thought out, and critical yet fair. Great job!

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