Details’ 1996 Profile of David Foster Wallace

I bought David Lipsky’s Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace the day it came out—bought it at 9:02 a.m., in fact. Like a lot of readers, I found there to be too much Lipsky, but at least it didn’t come at the expense of Wallace. Their transcript includes lots of great stuff; one thing that struck me was the references to a contemporaneous profile of Wallace by Details writer David Streitfeld. Here’s Wallace:

  • “Like Streitfeld thought I would never be his friend after the thing came out in Details” (18)
  • “They’ll take seventy pictures, and a Details shot’ll come out” (19)
  • “I’m more or less a regular person. And this was Streitfeld’s whole thing: ‘Are you normal, are you normal, are you normal?'” (42)

In the online expanse of Wallace fans, I couldn’t find even a citation—much less a copy—of this profile. So, with the help of Yale’s ILL division, I tracked it down. The above picture is, in fact, the “Details shot.” (Since I was working from a .pdf of a scan, this is the best I could do. Still, it’s easy to understand Wallace’s trepidation toward future photo shoots.)

Streitfeld’s profile is short—around 1,500 words—and a little predictable. That said, it’s miles better than the smug (and now oft-cited) New York Times Magazine profile by Frank Bruni. (Bruni breaks the story of Wallace’s “special tooth polish to combat the effects of the tobacco he chews,” and I couldn’t help but think of his recent profile of Scott Brown, where, again, Bruni finds a “plastic container used to hold a teeth-whitening mold.” One more instance of Bruni uncovering a clandestine dental product and I’m calling bullshit.) Streitfeld also adds a few details and intonations to the standard picture of Wallace: his Illinois home’s proximity to a slaughterhouse; the pizza coupons on his fridge; and, most interesting of all, I think, some closing insights into his religion. (Who knew Wallace twice failed the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults?)

The other important thing about Streitfeld’s profile, of course, is that it’s now a primary source in the history of Wallace’s literary reception. If you look at the timeline of Infinite Jest’s publicity (and factor in magazine lead times), it seems Streitfeld was the reporter who got there first; their interview took place around December of 1995, as Streitfeld cajoled Wallace into buying some Christmas lights. But Streitfeld never put the profile on his website. Even more improbably, Details never put it on theirs—not even during the rush of obits and tributes that followed Wallace’s suicide.

So I’m going to pull a Gawker and just post the full text after the jump; if anyone wants me to take it down, they can contact me here. But I hope they don’t. Streitfeld’s profile makes a nice counterpoint (or chaser) to Lipsky’s book.

The Wasted Land

America: home of the brave, land of the freaked. In Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace examines the United States of depression, addiction, and obsession.

By David Streitfeld

The city of Normal, Illinois, has taken its name as its destiny. It boasts a two-block downtown so low-key that no one ever goes there, a strip containing every fast-food outlet known to man, and 19,000 Illinois State students who would probably rather be at the University of Illinois. The landscape is featureless, the weather extreme, the thrills obscure.

David Foster Wallace likes it here. He’s bought a house just outside of town, teaches at the university, has acquired two huge hounds, and likes the idea of having children. One of Wallace’s deepest desires is to be normal in Normal.

It’ll never happen. The thirty-four-year-old writer has just published Infinite Jest, a thousand-page marvel about a disparate group of people trying to shed their various addictions and become productive members of society, able to stand living in places like Normal. Little, Brown is issuing the novel with the usual flurry of hype, which for once is justified: Infinite Jest is bigger, more ambitious, and better than anything else being published in the U.S. right now.

The principal setting is Boston, about a dozen years in the future. The United States, Canada, and Mexico are ruled by the Organization of North American Nations, a union that’s violently opposed by Quebecois terrorists. Commercialization has gotten to the point where years no longer have numbers but names supplied by corporate sponsors, like the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment.

One plot thread unspools at a halfway house for drug addicts; another revolves around three brothers and their father, who runs a tennis academy until he kills himself by putting his head in a microwave oven. For readers who go the distance, there are dozens of richly drawn characters and marvelous subplots, but even the most casual browser will quickly realize this is a writer intimately familiar with three subjects: addiction, depression, and tennis.

The latter topic, at least, is easy to explain. When Wallace, who grew up in nearby Champaign-Urbana, first picked up a tennis racket at the relatively late age of twelve, he discovered a natural affinity for the game. In fact, he used to come and compete on the same indoor tennis courts we’re at now. “I can still see dried bits of tears on the floor,” he jokes. Tonight’s opponent is John, a twenty-five-year-old friend seeking to unwind before his GREs. In Infinite Jest, a tennis master advises a neophyte to “learn to do nothing, with your whole head and body, and everything will be done by what’s around you,” but Wallace doesn’t quite play this way. He hustles up and down the court, sweats buckets. John, meanwhile, never ruffles the part in his hair.

Fiction is an easier game for Wallace. At Amherst College, he was a self-described “math weenie,” but his professors would often comment that his math papers read more like stories. Then a friend wrote a novel for his senior thesis, so Wallace did too. After graduation, he signed up with the creative writing program at the University of Arizona. By the end of his first year he had a contract for a novel. The kid was a natural.

During the mid-’80s, it was hip to be a writer just out of puberty. The Brat Pack, led by Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis, was in full flower. The publicity surrounding a writer was often more important than his work. Dozens of wannabes published their first novels to a brief flurry of attention, and were never heard from again.

But it turned out that Wallace’s Broom of the System, an exuberant tale of a switchboard operator’s search for love, was actually pretty good. Reviewers used words like “hilarious” and “wonderful,” and made the usual comparisons to Thomas Pynchon, the reigning god of hilarious metafiction. A follow-up volume of short stories, Girl With Curious Hair, drew equally admiring nods.

It was all so quick, so easy, that Wallace began to flounder. “I didn’t have a big draft of the celebrity thing, but I had a little sip,” he says. “I did a lot of drugs, slept around, did all the things I’d never gotten to do, all the things I thought all the cool people did.”

Before long, Wallace had dropped out of his philosophy Ph.D. program at Harvard and stopped trying to publish fiction. Living in a series of crummy apartments around Boston, he began to degenerate. “I was haunted by the idea that I was a sham and a whore and a fraud.”

He doesn’t want Infinite Jest to be seen as autobiography, which it’s not. On the other hand, if Wallace hadn’t been hospitalized in 1988 and put on a suicide watch, he might not have written so accurately about Kate, a character in Infinite Jest who keeps trying to die: “It’s like something horrible is about to happen,” she explains to her doctor, “there’s the feeling that there’s something you have to do right away to stop it but you don’t know what it is you have to do, and then it’s happening, too, the whole horrible time, it’s about to happen and also it’s happening all at the same time.”

Kate traces some of her problems back to an extreme fondness for marijuana, with which her creator also seems very familiar.

“In this country,” he says, “we’re unprecedentedly safe, comfortable, and well fed, with more and better venues for stimulation. And yet if you were asked, ‘Is this a happy or unhappy country?’ you’d check the ‘unhappy’ box. We’re living in an era of emotional poverty, which is something that serious drug addicts feel most keenly.”

The writer argues that “drug addiction is really a form of religion, albeit a bent one. An addict gives himself away to his substance utterly. He believes in it and trusts it, and his love for it is more important than his place in the community, his job, or his friends.”

Unlike some of his characters, Wallace managed to extricate himself from the downward spiral before the damage became permanent—these days, he won’t even drink beer. Moreover, he got the raw impetus for a new book. By this point, Wallace was living in upstate New York, in an apartment so small that he had to move everything onto the bed when he wanted to write. “It was,” he says, “like spending two years in a submarine.”

Mary Karr, who last year became something of a famous writer herself with the publication of her grim childhood memoir The Liar’s Club, was Wallace’s snorkel to the atmosphere. They didn’t last, despite the heart-shaped tattoo on Wallace’s upper arm inscribed MARY. It’s a gesture he now regrets, noting, “A tattoo-based relationship probably has fundamental problems.”

If Wallace were inclined to get a matching tattoo for his other arm, it would probably say JEEVES AND DRONE, after his beloved hounds, whom he calls his “kids.” “I’m worried I’m going to become one of those lonely thirty-year-olds who’s really into dogs,” he confides, describing exactly what he is already.

Despite the holiday season, his modest ranch house, just downwind of the slaughterhouse, didn’t boast a single colored light until I shamed him into picking some up at Wal-Mart. “It’s kind of sad,” he confesses. “I’m not good at the little domestic things.” His refrigerator displays coupons for every pizza parlor within a thirty-mile radius.

It’s a circumscribed life, but it is, after all, normal—and Wallace plans to remain faithful to it even if 1996 turns out to be the Year of Infinite Jest. Which it might. Reading the novel may require a huge committment of time, but Infinite Jest unerringly pinpoints how Americans have turned the pursuit of pleasure into an addiction, and it does so in an entertaining, even moving way. Count on the literary world to bow down before him.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t want to be part of the scene. “Not that there’s anything wrong with it. I just can’t handle it.” Much easier to be the only writer in Normal. “No one’s as tolerant of you as someone who has no fucking idea what you’re doing.”

He’ll blend in even more after he starts attending church. Brought up an atheist, he has twice failed to pass through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, the first step toward becoming a Catholic. The last time, he made the mistake of referring to “the cult of personality surrounding Jesus.” That didn’t go over big with the priest, who correctly suspected Wallace might have a bit too much skepticism to make a fully obedient Catholic. “I’m a typical American,” says Wallace. “Half of me is dying to give myself away, and the other half is continually rebelling.”

Recently he found a Mennonite house of worship, which he finds sympathetic even if the hymns are impossible to sing. “The more I believe in something, and the more I take something other than me seriously, the less bored I am, the less self-hating. I get less scared. When I was going through that hard time a few years ago, I was scared all the time.” It’s not a trip he ever plans to take again.


David Streitfeld. “The Wasted Land.” Details March 1996: 122-24.


41 thoughts on “Details’ 1996 Profile of David Foster Wallace

  1. It’s amusing to think that this little Details article required such a serious level of scholarship to unearth. Kudos to you for posting it. Maybe this issue of the magazine’ll end up at the Beinecke in a few decades.

  2. Thanks for posting this. You don’t by any chance know where one can find the 1987 Esquire “Guide to the Literary Universe” also heavily cited in the Lipsky book?

    1. I never thought of tracking that down—it sounded to me like a charticle or something. Either way, I’d imagine that old copies of Esquire are much easier to find than old copies of Details?

      1. Craig —

        I can send it if you like: we had fun tracking it down on this end. (The Esquire, I mean.)

        Great find on the Streitfeld. Amazing to see it again.

        All best,

    2. The citation for that is
      “Guide to the literary universe.” Esquire 108.2 (1987): 51.

      You can use your local public (or if you’re still in college- academic library) to ILL a copy.

      You can also use to find a local library who has access… This should be a permalink to Esquire ( just enter your zip code at the bottom to find a local library and it should hyperlink you into their catalog with their available years, etc.

  3. Love this, thank you for posting it.

    (you may want to run the article through a spell-check, I saw two typos–“hapening” and “palor”.)

      1. Hey, Craig — nice work here! Thanks for doing this.

        There’s also a typo in the second-to-last paragraph — “throguh” for “through.”

  4. thanks for posting this! i’m impressed that there are libraries in america that have archived back issues of details.

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