In August of 1974, I went into a bookstore on Pennsylvania Avenue, in Washington, D.C., and asked if I could see the manager about a job. I was twenty-two, a recent graduate of a small Midwestern college, and I was sweating through my shirt. I was wearing a white summer suit jacket I’d found in a thrift shop, the sort of apparel, I hoped, that a would-be writer, particularly one in search of work, might be able to get away with in a Southern city like Washington. It was in the mid-nineties that day, but I’d kept the jacket on, perhaps as an emblem of some noble idea I had of myself, perhaps to distinguish myself from the ill-dressed tourists cluttering the sidewalks outside the White House, into which Gerald Ford had recently moved. In my hand was a Modern Library edition of John Donne, and inside the book was a copy of my resume, folded into an unprofessional square.
The bookstore was adjacent to the Executive Office Building, on the ground floor of a building whose upper floors were occupied by journalists and speechwriters and lobbyists and lawyers. The front of the store was devoted to books about contemporary politics and biographies and economics treatises and thrillers. Poetry was in the rear, behind two spinning racks of greeting cards. There was no Donne, and Auden and Frost took a backseat to McKuen and Gibran and Edgar Lee Masters. Beyond the poetry shelf was the stock room, where the manager had an office.
“Go on back,” a clerk said to me. “He’ll be happy to see you. Somebody just quit an hour ago.”
The stock room was a windowless, L-shaped space, with a wood worktable set against the longer wall. On the table were a couple of unopened book boxes and also a glossy photograph of a glamorous woman who might have been an actress or an opera singer. An X-Acto knife had been stuck through her forehead. I didn’t recognize her. I moved on, as if to ponder the meaning of this tableau was not my business.
The manager’s “office” was in the back of the room—a big metal desk that was partly hidden from view by a Japanese-style screen imprinted with a painting of the sea by Hokusai. Behind the screen, punching buttons on an adding machine, was a small dark-haired man wearing a short-sleeved sports shirt crowded with silvery squiggles that turned out to be fish. His desk was untidy. A half-finished bowl of soup (navy bean, it looked like) sat amidst publishers’ catalogues and invoices and a spillage (from an overturned coffee can) of pens and pencils. There were packets of saltines everywhere—he didn’t eat them, apparently, but neither did he throw them away.
The man looked to be of Mediterranean descent. Anyway, his skin had the same hazy midsummer tint as did that of my part-Italian girlfriend. And then he rose from his chair, and, grasping my hand almost as if he’d been expecting me, introduced himself as Constantine Mitropoulos. He said I should call him Connie.
“Joe Bennett,” I said.
“Take off your coat, Joe. You look like you’re burning up.”
It would be an understatement to say that Connie was effusive—he was telling me about the “supreme satisfactions” of the bookselling business even before I’d removed my jacket—but I couldn’t help noting that his forehead, from which his thin wavy black hair sprung away, seemed darkened by melancholy. I guessed that his five o’clock shadow must have become visible long before noon. As he rhapsodized about putting the latest Herman Wouk or Alvin Toffler into the hands of a customer, I also couldn’t help thinking that even with the bibliophile’s glasses that hung from a chain around his neck, he bore a resemblance to the disgraced ex-president. There was his nose, for instance, with its Nixonian swoop and bristly nostrils.
On Connie’s desk, amidst the general mess, was a black-and-white photograph of himself shaking hands with Spiro Agnew at an event that I assumed preceded Agnew’s resignation from the vice-presidency. Agnew, elegantly tailored, silver-headed, gave every impression of a powerful man who was not, even for this glad-handing event, off-duty. Connie beamed up at him. Connie’s plaid sports jacket, the sort a vaudeville comedian might wear, looked loud, even in black and white. The picture was autographed.
There was one other photograph in Connie’s office, of an older couple I took to be his parents. They sat in lawn chairs in Sunday dress clothes, gazing without smiling at the camera, looking like seafarers who had landed on a continent they didn’t care for. There were no pictures of children and none of a spouse, either. I guessed Connie was (to use a term still in circulation then) a confirmed bachelor—with little to do besides sell books.
Eventually, after mentioning what he called a “footnote” about the low profit margins in the bookselling business, he asked me where I was from.
“The hinterland,” he said, with an odd little shiver. Perhaps he’d had a bad experience in the hinterland.
But he hired me five minutes later, after declining my offer to show him my resume, after ignoring my admission that I’d had no experience in the retail business. (“It’s not calculus,” he said, and when I said that I hadn’t gotten much beyond algebra, being more a humanities kind of student, he said, “It’s not algebra either.”) He said he had a “feeling” about me, and was sure that I could “fill the void” left by the employee who had quit suddenly that day for reasons Connie did not go into. “You could very well be, with a little shaping and molding, assistant managerial material,” he said, propping his glasses on his disconcerting nose. He told me to be at the store the next morning at nine, and then he glanced at my volume of Donne, and said, “No man is an island, right?”
* * *
I rode the bus up Connecticut Avenue, through the letters-of-the-alphabet streets, past the bookstore (an older and a more conspicuously literary place than Connie’s) where I’d struck out earlier in the day, and on into the two-syllable streets, past the zoo. I got off at Albemarle, the first of the three-syllable streets, and walked west into the declining sun. I was going to see Joanna, my girlfriend, who had rented a room in a house full of young Washingtonians. I was staying with Joanna until I could find a place of my own. I couldn’t wait to see her and feel her through the thin summer dress she’d left the house in that morning. I had my new job to tell her about. And I had memorized the first two stanzas of “The Good Morrow” on the bus, in order to recite it to her. The late afternoon heat now seemed almost like a blessing, or a not unpleasant lubricant, anyway.
When I entered the house, music was playing upstairs and down. The smell of beans and onions and ham hocks mixed with the aroma of last night’s (or this afternoon’s) weed. Despite the music, despite the pot of food bubbling on the stove, nobody was to be seen. Halfway up the stairs, I heard the sounds of someone climaxing. “Godgodgodohmydearfuckinggod.” Though I’d been staying here for little more than a week, I knew the voices of many of Joanna’s housemates when they were making love, which it seemed as if everybody (with the possible exception of Paul, whose job with a Congressman apparently didn’t allow for it) did from roughly dusk to dawn. Once Joanna started giggling while we were making love, and I said, “What?” into the air above her belly, and she said, “Can’t you hear him? It’s Doc, doing his ‘Heigh, ho, heigh, ho.’” Doc’s real name was Carlos—he was short and had a pointed little beard and wore round spectacles, like the lead Disney dwarf.
The person I was hearing now was Theresa, who worked in the Men’s department of Garfinkel’s. Her boyfriend was a lawyer, a married man, according to Joanna. I’d never seen him.
Joanna was not in her room. She had a job at a day care facility for low-income children near Capitol Hill, and one or two evenings a week she also worked as a model in figure drawing classes (though tonight was not one of them). She earned twenty dollars for two hours of striking poses, some of which were quite awkward, she said. When I asked her whether the poses were the hardest thing about it, she said, “It’s that and it’s also having to keep a straight face when you’re naked on a pedestal, with your cheek on your knee, or you’re doing some sort of Degas ballerina position, trying not to wobble, and everybody is drawing you very seriously, and also it’s knowing, despite what I just said, that some people aren’t drawing you that seriously, they’re mainly there for the titillation, even if they can draw competently. Seeing them looking at you is enough to make you want to fart.” I asked why, if that was so, she would keep on doing it, and she said, “Money, art, and a streak of exhibitionism.” She gave me a smile that she presumably didn’t give the art students, and I took her in my arms while pretending to be a mature adult about the whole thing.
I poured myself a glass of peppermint schnapps (I’d brought a bottle from Wisconsin, a send-off gift from an uncle) and then I took off my clothes and turned on the floor fan and lay down on the mattress (a queen, but a thin one). On the walls were art posters—di Chirico, Cezanne, Vermeer—and also a couple of Joanna’s own drawings, one a nude, one a portrait of her diplomat father in a suit, both more than competently done. Also on the wall, above her dresser, was a famous 1963 magazine photograph of a Buddhist monk who had set himself on fire in protest of the anti-Buddhist policies of the South Vietnamese government. The same photograph had been tacked to the wall above her desk at our college. (We were the same age, but Joanna had graduated six months before I did; she was in a hurry to get out into the world.) Joanna said she put the picture up to remind herself to be courageous. Every time I looked at it—the monk sitting akimbo, his back perfectly straight, his bald head held aloft by grace or dignity or meditative muscle, even as fire consumed his robes and his flesh—I wondered what I would burn myself up for. Or how much pain I could stand before giving up.
I dozed off before I finished the glass of schnapps.
When I awakened, I saw Joanna kneeling at the end of the mattress. “Hey, sleepy-eyed Joe,” she said.
There was quite a bit of light left in the day. Perhaps I’d slept for only minutes.
I told her that I’d gotten a job. “Five-fifty an hour. May I interest you in our only copy of Thank You, Fog? It has been flying off the shelf.”
“I’m looking for an obscure little book called Tales of Joe.” She was on her feet now, pulling her dress over her head. “The unexpurgated edition. Comes in a brown paper wrapper?”
I could watch Joanna get out of a dress forever. Not that she routinely undressed with a strip-tease artist’s deliberation. No, despite what she’d said about her “streak of exhibitionism,” Joanna was rather shy, or more complicatedly exhibitionistic than, say, the sort of person who felt empty unless she could draw attention to herself. For Joanna, acknowledging an exhibitionistic streak was perhaps a way of keeping it from becoming fatal.
I recited the opening stanzas of “The Good Morrow.” Though I was not much of a poet, and would not ever become much of one, I had a talent for memorization—and especially for memorizing what I would’ve liked to have written.
We made love. By the standards of the house, we were quiet.
Later, after a dinner of Cuban-style rice and beans, we played cribbage and smoked reefer in the living room. Doc and Theresa were there, and so was Paul, home early from the Hill. (The lawyer had vanished.) Paul, still in his necktie, talked at length about his day, which included a visit from Congressman Rodino, but nobody except Joanna paid much attention. Joanna liked Paul, his earnest affability, his sideburns, which were a little short of daring.
During the smoking of a second joint, Doc asked Joanna if, now that I had a job, I’d be moving out soon. Doc held the lease to the house and ran a tight ship when it came to rent, grocery money, etc.
“You could ask him,” Joanna said. She had beaten Doc in three straight games of cribbage.
I was sitting on the couch, deep in one of its valleys. It was made of fake leather and became sticky when the weather was humid. I was staring at what looked like tooth marks high on Theresa’s thigh.
Carlos pulled at his beard, moved a peg, and didn’t ask me when I was moving out.
Paul rose from his seat and said, “Got to go bone up on Bangladesh. The Congressman is going there soon.”
“Bone away,” said Theresa, with a stoned cackle.
I followed him upstairs, to write a poem that would make no sense in the morning.
* * *
Connie was absent my first day of work. An employee named Frank, who described himself as Connie’s “new assistant manager,” told me to make myself familiar with the stock. “There’ll be a quiz in a half hour,” he said, grinning the grin of a new assistant manager who also sucked lemon lozenges. I passed the test, but only barely, he said. He showed me how to use the cash register, a mechanical one.
“There’s a cheat sheet for calculating tax if you can’t do it in your head,” Frank said, pointing to a laminated piece of paper taped to the counter next to the register. Frank belonged to Mensa. He wore his Phi Beta Kappa key around his neck (he showed it to me one day in the stock room, unbuttoning his shirt). He was forty-two. He wore a necktie every day and black dress shoes that were shined to a high polish and would have reflected his horn-rimmed glasses and his angular, unreflective face had he ever looked downward in consternation, a state he seemed to have no familiarity with. Why, with his academic credentials, he was a clerk in a bookstore, clicking lozenges around his stained teeth, I didn’t know.
With Frank at my side, I rang up a sixty-cent birthday card sale to a man who’d written speeches for Lyndon Johnson. Frank told me his name, and also said that his speeches weren’t memorable. Frank said that he never addressed Washington celebrities by name—“that would only encourage them.”
At lunch, Frank said that he couldn’t “abide” contemporary American poetry. “Nonsense scribbled on water,” he said. He also said he had taken the Foreign Service exam and aced it, but had not done well in interviews. “I tend to be frank, if you’ll pardon the yolk. A little frankness overseas might not hurt us. I could run on that slogan, I think. The other thing that got me into trouble with the diplomats is that I was once a member of the Socialist Workers Party. If you ever want to be bored out of your mind, go to one of their meetings.”
We were sitting on a bench in Farragut Square. It was about ninety degrees in the shade, but Frank drank hot tea from a thermos. He nibbled at what looked like a Benedictine sandwich—anyway, it had a greenish tinge. I was eating a tuna on rye, purchased at a shop where Frank went only if he was “truly desperate” and only if he was truly desperate for pastrami. “If I want a tuna fish sandwich,” Frank said, “I will make it at home.”
Home for Frank was a dozen blocks north, not too far from the Hilton Hotel. He had an apartment in an old house that he said had plumbing from the early middle ages. “The instructions for flushing the toilet are in Latin.” Connie was the landlord. For some reason, that didn’t surprise me.
“I can’t escape him,” Frank said. “Don’t tell him I said that.” Frank tossed a sparrow a crumb from his green sandwich.
“Where’d you say Connie is today?” It was hard to get a word in edgewise with Frank, but I’d seen a little opening.
“His mother is demented and his father doesn’t know how to fry an egg. He’s with them, over in Virginia. They take up a lot of his time.”
“What happened to your predecessor, the assistant manager who quit yesterday?”
“That’s a private matter,” Frank said, gruffly, and then he said, “Let’s just say he was an incompetent son-of-a-bitch, and that Connie and I were obliged to let him go.”
On the way back to the store, Frank said, “I’m not officially assistant manager yet. Pro tem today, pro aeternitate tomorrow.”
* * *
A week later, Frank asked me to dinner at his apartment—“I’m an excellent cook”—but I had an excuse: Joanna’s parents were in town, and we were having dinner with them that night. Joanna had invited her parents to come by the house and have a drink before we went to a restaurant in Georgetown. She bought gin and vermouth and made baba ghannouj and aired the house out as best she could.
Joanna and I were in her room when her parents arrived. We were having a quarrel that seemed to stem partly from the fact that I was going to wear my stained white jacket and no tie to dinner. Also at issue was the fact that she’d just told me that she planned to keep her room here, instead of moving in with me. I’d found an efficiency, in an excellent location, except that it was three blocks from Frank’s house.
“Did I ever tell you that one of my father’s life projects is to listen to every one of Haydn’s one hundred-odd symphonies?”
“Yes, you did.”
“Can you zip me?” She turned her back to me, and I zipped her dress up. I saw the hatchet of my nose going into her nape. She’d pulled her hair off her neck, and tendrils sprouted from the paleness like wild seedlings.
“Is this where I’m supposed to say ‘Is there someone else?’”
“I’m one-half loner, Joe. I like my lonerness. I will be at your tiny little apartment with my toothbrush almost every night.”
We went downstairs, I without my stained jacket, Joanna with her nape unmarked. Mr. Dunn, who was an Economic Counselor at the American Embassy in Belgrade, was tall. His face was on the long side but not dour, his eyes were blue but not piercing, and everything he said and did seemed tactful without quite being calculated. Around Joanna, he was somewhat less tactful, or perhaps only more effusive. They held hands while we talked in the front hall, and then they went off to the kitchen to make the gin-and-tonics. This left me and Paul (who had materialized suddenly) to give Joanna’s Italian mother a tour of the house. We didn’t take her upstairs.
We had drinks and Joanna’s baba ghannouj in the living room. “It’s your recipe, Mama,” Joanna said, in response to a compliment from her mother. I hadn’t eaten baba ghannouj until that day. I was a provincial, and gin and tonics went to my head faster than I could spell baba ghannouj. Mr. Dunn told us that baba ghannouj was made, with small variations, in Romania and Turkey and Greece, as well as in Lebanon, and he pronounced the Romanian, Turkish, and Greek names for each version. He somehow did this without sounding like what my Wisconsin mother would call “a full-throated snob.”
Theresa’s boyfriend came running downstairs and flew out the front door. Paul said, “Must be late for dinner.”
“Our housemate’s friend,” Joanna said to her parents.
“We don’t even know his full name,” Paul added. “Clark Something.”
“Kent,” Joanna said.
“A lawyer,” I said, with as much disdain as I could muster. “In a city full of lawyers.” Mr. Dunn, I’d forgotten, had a law degree, in addition to a Masters in economics. “Married, it’s said.” Where had I acquired the morally superior tone?
Mr. Dunn said, “Let’s drink to the new President. And to clean government.”
“Hear, hear,” Paul said.
We drank to President Ford, and then we went out to dinner—I in a tight-fitting plaid jacket borrowed from Paul, and Paul in a more stylish light blue number. I had two more drinks, and much later that night, when Joanna and I were lying in our underwear on her mattress, our elbows just touching, the fan blowing on us, I said, “I don’t think I impressed your dad.”
“You gave it the old college try,” she said, an unpleasantness in her voice. “And my mother liked you.”
I said, “Your mother is a beautiful woman.”
“She’s taken,” Joanna said—mirthlessly, I thought. I could almost see, in the darkness, the Vietnamese monk going up in flames.
“What would make you want to burn yourself up? Anything?” I’d asked her before, in college, but perhaps her views had changed.
“Not love, if that’s what you’re thinking,” she said.
“Me neither,” I said. “Though I think I would die if I couldn’t have you.” I laughed a small laugh in order to suggest she didn’t have to take me completely seriously about the dying part.
“‘Have,’” she said, her elbow now only proximate to mine.
* * *
One day in September, Connie returned from lunch with a lapel button that said “Whip Inflation Now.” I was at the cash register when he came in.
“I think I’ll give this to Frank,” he said, grinning what I guessed he supposed was a mischievous grin, holding the button in the palm of his hand as if it were a pearl. The button, which he’d gotten from Ford political headquarters across the street, was apparently Connie’s idea of poking fun at Frank, who believed that inflation was preferable to the alternatives, which included unemployment. They’d had arguments on the subject. A few minutes later, I heard shouting coming from the stock room, and not long after that, Frank, carrying his lunch box and thermos, shot past me at the register. “Goddamn Republican monetarist idiot,” he said, over his shoulder. “Tell him I quit.”
An hour later, Connie came out of his office and said, “I’d been wanting to get rid of him for a long time, but I certainly didn’t think my prank would drive him away. Some other retail business will surely find room for his genius.”
Frank came over to my apartment that night, around suppertime. When he rang the bell, I was cutting up mushrooms and onions for an omelet, which I planned to serve to Joanna, whenever she arrived. Tonight was a modeling night.
I gave Frank a glass of water—he didn’t drink alcohol—and then I went back to my cutting board. There was a touch of autumn in the air, but Frank, standing a foot from me in the narrow galley of a kitchen, was sweating at the temples.
“I know this realtor who will hire me tomorrow,” he said. “It’ll take me a day to learn the business and pass whatever test you have to pass, and a year from now I’ll have Connie working for me as a super, doing scut work—or, maybe if I’m feeling nice, as a doorman.” I wasn’t sure how this would come about, but I didn’t ask. “Did I ever tell you that the reason Connie was leased that prime space right across from the EOB is because he knows some Republican fat cat who is a pal of Agnew’s, our corrupt ex-vice-president of so-called Greek heritage? Connie and Spiro wouldn’t know Sophocles if Sophocles turned up at their house with Oedipus Tyrannus in his hand. Do you know who Connie thinks is a great writer? Herman Wouk. My god.”
Joanna didn’t arrive, and the mushrooms began to shrivel. Frank had another glass of water, while we listened to a Chopin piano concerto, which Joanna had given me in the hope of broadening my musical tastes. When that was over, I asked Frank if he wanted to listen to my one other classical record, Carmina Burana.
“Orff laid an oeuf with that one,” Frank said, rising from his chair.
I listened to Carmina Burana alone, while downing most of a bottle of Mateus.
When Joanna showed up, I was close to passed out. I’d chased the Mateus with the last of the Wisconsin schnapps. But we somehow had a conversation.
Some of what I said that night I learned about a couple of days later, when we met for lunch on the Mall. It was here, too, on the grass, within the shadow of the Washington Monument, with schoolchildren streaming past to see what they could see from the top of that needle poking at the blue sky, that Joanna told me that she had started to see Paul.
“Paul?” I said, though not quite in disbelief. “He’s like the student council president. He doesn’t have any feelings. There’s no poetry in him.”
“Is that what’s in you?” she said, and then she took it back.
I looked at her sandwich—she’d taken one modest bite out of it. It sat on wax paper, and looked all but abandoned.
“Did your father tell you to dump me for Paul?”
“I have a mind of my own.”
I heard the chatter of children, the voice of a teacher telling them to stay in line. For some reason, I had the thought that if I never saw a vireo, I would not have lived a full life. Where did one see vireos? Not on the Mall probably, unless you could see a stuffed one in the Smithsonian.
I said, “So, what would you burn up for, Joanna? Or is that picture just for show?”
“If I thought burning myself up would help to stop the war, I would do it. If I thought burning myself up would somehow make the lives of the poor children I work with slightly more comfortable, I would do it. I keep the picture around, as you know, to remind myself to be less of a selfish jerk.”
I took a bite of my sandwich. Tuna on rye, home-made.
“And what would you die for, Joe?”
“If I could write one or two really good poems,” I said, looking up the Mall, trying to think of something clever to say, “I might donate one of my nuts to the Smithsonian.”
“The Smithsonian has a section devoted to poets’ testicles?”
I didn’t know the answer to that. I got up off the grass and walked toward 17th Street. I wanted to turn back, but I resisted.
* * *
When Frank quit, Connie did not offer me the assistant manager’s position. He’d chosen an employee named Michael, whose true interest was theater and who’d informed me that he planned to leave the bookstore as soon as he landed a part in something that paid at least a token wage. Though I’d begun to think that Connie didn’t show very good judgment when it came to hiring, I didn’t really care that he’d passed me over. Being a nine-to-five clerk left more of the day for poetry. I mostly just read it, however, though there was a night when I did write some vers libre about Wilber Mills and Fanne Foxe. I sent this poem to Joanna—I recall now lines about “my bushy tail/ bulging like Argentina on a map/ oh, Wilber, don’t fail me,/ your vulpine lady,/ your stripper all dressed up for a dip in/ the Tidal Basin”—but it did not elicit a response.
On another night while alone with myself in my bed, reading Whitman, it occurred to me that I lacked a clear career path. (I’d just received a letter from my father, an attorney in Fond du Lac, who said, among other things, “Still thinking about taking the law boards?”) I felt pretty sure that I wasn’t going to become a poet, and that I didn’t have a future in bookselling or any other kind of retail business. I had come to Washington to be with Joanna, whose bags I would’ve carried to wherever she might’ve gone next, and now she’d taken up with a Congressional aide, a guy who read Foreign Affairs at the breakfast table.
I took the LSATs that fall. OK, I would be a dullard. Though maybe, if I was admitted somewhere and somehow survived the three years of school, I could work in poverty law or tenant law. I would try to be a good person, not some vulture working for corporate interests.
In the meantime, to supplement my bookstore salary, I found part-time work on weekends. An elderly man who had worked in the Roosevelt administration and who had known, he said, “tout le monde,” hired me to type his memoirs. Mr. Bell was a patrician Southerner who didn’t act like a patrician even when he spoke French (he spoke it with a slight Southern twang), and he paid me generously for my typing, and then one Saturday afternoon (the chauffeur had the day off) we went to the movie theater to see That’s Entertainment! and he choked on some popcorn during a clip featuring Gene Kelly, and five minutes later he was dead.
I couldn’t have saved him—I didn’t even know the Heimlich Maneuver then—but I felt guilty that I’d done nothing but shout “Help!,” and I broke down during the brief questioning by the police, one of whom seemed to think I was Mr. Bell’s paramour and might even have finagled myself into his will. I gave the police my phone number, and after a nephew who was a lawyer had finally arrived at the morgue, I walked thirty blocks through the rain to my apartment. I got into bed and stayed there, listening to the radiators hiss and clank, falling in and out of a fevered sleep. I got out of bed on Monday morning, to buy a Post and see if it had an obituary of Mr. Bell. It didn’t, and I went back to bed and over the next two days ignored the ringing phone.
On Tuesday evening, somebody knocked on my door. I thought it might be Frank (though I hadn’t seen him in weeks), or Joanna (entirely wishful thinking), or the police. But when I pressed my nose against the glass, I saw Connie’s face. It was raining, and I let him in.
“We thought you might’ve died or something,” he said, dripping on the kitchen floor. He was wearing one of those see-through raincoats that fold into a square the size of a wallet and a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker hat. He looked ridiculous.
I made a rictus-like face, perhaps intentionally, perhaps involuntarily.
“Are you sick?” he asked.
I shrugged. My nose was clogged, my head weighed a ton, but the fever had passed.
“Can I make you some tea?” He unsnapped the snaps on his coat. “Do you have any tea?”
I said I had some Taster’s Choice coffee.
“It’s nasty out tonight,” Connie said. Perhaps because I’d been absent from work, and had not phoned in an excuse, Connie felt no compunction about making himself at home. He placed his hat on the kitchen table, hung his coat on a ladderback chair I’d found on the curb, and then set to boiling water. I was only twenty-three, and I wasn’t always aware of the desires that might underlie people’s actions, any more than I was aware of my own. I could’ve sworn that Connie was here only to look after me, as a mother would, unless he had come to convert me to Republicanism.
He made some instant soup for me, and put peanut butter on celery stalks, a favorite of mine. I was hungry and I ate it all quickly, while he sipped Taster’s Choice. At some point I said, “I’ve been meaning to ask you about that photograph that somebody put the box cutter in. It was on the workbench the day I came in to see about a job.”
He frowned, as if not remembering, or as if not wanting to remember.
“The glossy photo of the movie star?” I said, trying to jog his memory.
“Hmm. I wonder if that was my picture of Jill St. John. You remember when she and Henry Kissinger were dating, I’m sure. And then Jill went and married somebody else. I can’t remember how I came into possession of it, or why it ended up on the workbench. Though I did meet Mr. Kissinger one day. He stopped by the store.”
“Why would there have been a box cutter stuck in the picture?”
“Oh, yes, right, now I remember. It was Frank’s predecessor who did that, the young man who quit on me just before you arrived. The picture was actually of a local actress whom I’d once known in a—” he paused to sip his coffee, heavily sugared—“in a more than casual way. It’s all rather complicated. Jack, Frank’s predecessor, was, like Frank, a bit of a hothead. I like passion in a bookstore clerk, but you have to draw the line somewhere.”
He got up from his chair and wandered over (insofar as you can “wander” in an efficiency apartment) to my plank-and-cinderblock bookshelves. On the top shelf, sitting on a copy of Swann’s Way (bought at a Georgetown store), was a framed photograph of Joanna. It was the photograph of her I’d kept on my desk at school. I still have it, almost forty years later. I keep it in a drawer of my desk at my law office. I don’t have to look at it to see Joanna’s face, but I’ve been known to.
Connie turned toward me, with the picture in his hand. It was a shoulders-and-above shot that had been trimmed to fit an old oval metalwork frame that was like something my grandmother might have owned.
“Your girlfriend back in dairyland?”
“She’s here,” I said, while trying to hide my annoyance at his scrutiny of the picture. “In D.C.”
“Nice shoulders,” he said. “Lovely face, though there’s something elusive about it.”
I didn’t say anything.
“She’s here, but she’s no longer your girlfriend?” Connie might have been inept in picking managerial material, but he had a gift for finding the sore spots in people.
“Something like that,” I said, and then, like a child, I snatched the picture away. It was a child, after all, who kept the picture on his bookshelf.
I apologized, Connie apologized, and then he said, as if suddenly pricked by inspiration, “I brought a little Mary Jane along.” He patted his trouser pocket. “In the event you wanted to blow your mind.” He laughed, perhaps at the phrase, which, even then, in 1974, was a bit overworked.
“Well,” I said. I wondered if Connie was some sort of undercover narc.
“I’m probably the only Republican bookstore owner who smokes pot. Not on the job, of course.”
We smoked a joint he rolled and then another one and we listened to music (Coltrane, Orff, Joni Mitchell) and then Connie did a Greek taverna dance for me (to no music). He stayed late. I’d never been so stoned in my life.
“This Republican pot is very strong,” I said, giggling, prostrate.
“Yes,” he said. “Isn’t it?”
* * *
At the bookstore, Connie and I tiptoed around each other, talking little. This dance of avoidance went on all winter and then into the spring until one day, not long after the cherry trees had blossomed, Connie called me into his office and told me he was letting me go.
“Why?” I had told him that I was going to law school in the fall, but I’d hoped to stay on at the store through the summer.
He said, “Money. Finances. You may have noticed that we’re in a recession.” He was tapping a bronze letter opener on his desk. In a pinch, you could perhaps use it to plunge into somebody’s heart.
I said, “I thought Republicans liked recessions.”
“They make us a little meaner,” Connie said. “I’m sorry, Joe, I can’t have you around anymore.”
I looked at the black hairs in the hollow at the base of his neck, like wispy roots growing crazily upward. That rainy night back in December, when he undressed, his hairiness had taken me aback—had taken me aback but not quite repelled me.
His nose was pointed up at my face, doleful thickets blooming in the nostrils. “You understand, don’t you?”
I said, “I wasn’t cut out for retail, anyway.”
* * *
One afternoon a couple weeks later, Wesley, Mr. Bell’s chauffeur, came by my apartment. He was wearing a checked motoring cap—his new Datsun hatchback he’d left idling at the curb—and over his shoulder was a garment bag. He said, “Mr. Bell left you some suits to spiff yourself up in.” He pulled a twenty out of his shirt pocket. “This is for alterations, in case you need to make them. If not, have a steak on Mr. Bell.”
There were two seersucker suits and a white one. The white one was made by a local tailor “expressly for C. A. Bell” (so it said on the inside billfold pocket), and looked as if it had scarcely been worn. It was a little snug in the shoulders and under the arms, but it fit well otherwise. But where would I wear a white suit—or, for that matter, a seersucker one? Probably not at law school, in Iowa.
I left the suit on, though, and walked a few blocks over to a liquor store on Connecticut Avenue and with Mr. Bell’s twenty bought a quart of Heaven Hill and a pack of Tareytons. I had eight dollars left, so I also bought a sixteen-ounce ribeye at the grocery.
When I returned to the apartment, Joanna was sitting on the step. She had a sketchpad on her knees.
It was a beautiful spring afternoon. She’d been sketching the Japanese maple that grew between my building and the adjacent one. It had leafed out, and Joanna had gotten some of the tree’s feathery delicacy into her drawing. There was a cat sleeping under the tree, stretched out as if after a meal of songbird, but she’d omitted it, for whatever reason.
I told her about my dismissal from the bookstore, law school, how I came into possession of the suit.
She said that when she saw me coming up the sidewalk, she’d had to shut her eyes. “A blinding light I thought you were,” she said.
She told me that she’d decided to go to art school. She would start at the Maryland Institute, in Baltimore, that summer.
I wondered if the picture of the burning monk would travel with her.
“We’re just friends,” she said.
I took the bottle of Heaven Hill out of its bag, and said, “Shall we drink to art school?”
“And to law school?”
I broke the seal and screwed off the cap and handed her the bottle. She took a slug and said, “Would you want to pose for me?”
“In my blinding white suit?”
She took another slug. “Without it.”
* * *
I was easy. I have always been easy. Say that you want me, or want me to undress for you, and I will probably fall over in gratitude.
But sitting for Joanna wasn’t easy. She asked if I would sit with my legs crossed, my back straight. “Criss-cross applesauce,” she said.
“Like someone meditating. Or burning up.”
“I want to draw you in a difficult position, a position you aren’t accustomed to. It might reveal something unusual.”
“That I have a greater tolerance of pain than you imagined?”
I sat naked on my cot, my legs crossed, my back as straight as two gulps of Heaven Hill had made it, my hands cupped below my navel. She drew and drew, lifting her head from the sketchbook now and then to glance at me. She flipped a page and started over. She crossed and uncrossed her legs, and the ladderback chair she sat on creaked. I stared at her bare shins, at her bare arms. I watched her pencil move across the paper, then hover as she tilted her head, then alight again.
“May I have a cigarette?” I asked.
“Soon,” she said.
Evening had crept in, and Joanna was sketching in the light that came from the kitchen. She didn’t turn on the lamp that was behind her, on the bookshelf, where the photograph of her lay face downward. (I’d turned it over while she used the bathroom.) Perhaps the dimness appealed to her, made her concentrate.
She said, “There. Stay there.” Where else was I but “there,” inside my aching, sweating body? But perhaps she saw something in the slant of my shoulders that she wanted to capture.
“This is all for art?” I said. Her hand moved the pencil across the paper—a whisper in the dimness, as if her hand were on me, tracing my kneecaps, touching the insides of my thighs, the rims of my ears.
“What else is there?” she said.
“The last time we saw each other, on the Mall, I thought I wouldn’t have lived unless I saw a vireo. I don’t know why I thought that. Maybe I’d read it in a poem or something.”
“A vireo? A vireo is pretty common, isn’t it? You could probably see one in Rock Creek Park. You’ve probably seen one and not known it.”
“I would like to knowingly see one,” I said. “And what about love? Isn’t there something to be said for love? In addition to art?”
She was erasing something—a line, a fold of flesh.
She drew some more, and then she let me have a cigarette. We cooked the steak and drank more bourbon, and then, possibly out of guilt or lust or tenderness or need or some combination of all those things, she kissed me. She said, “Are you angry with me?”
I said, “If I were inside you, I wouldn’t be angry.” It wasn’t a plea, quite. More a statement of belief, that sex could wash anger away, temporarily.
We made love. I thought we were starting over, but we were finishing up. Two days later, she sent me an envelope containing one of her drawings of me and also the photograph of the Vietnamese monk. There was a note on the back of the drawing—“I will miss you.”
I put the drawing in the trash.
* * *
I didn’t see Joanna again until 2011, when I was in Madison. I’d come over from Milwaukee one winter day to march in a pro-labor protest at the Capitol. I was a prosperous lawyer, a full-time employee of an insurance company, something of an expert in medical malpractice law, but I was also, improbably enough, a liberal. I justified my income by working pro bono for liberal causes. Sometimes at night, even before I’d finished my first Scotch, high in my apartment on a bluff above Lake Michigan, I would think of the Vietnamese monk dousing himself with gasoline and then igniting himself, eyes open, fully alive until he wasn’t.
I circled the Capitol with seventy-five thousand other people. I walked behind a drum-and-bagpipe contingent from an upstate fire department and ahead of a farmer driving an old red International tractor that pulled a wagon full of cowshit. (The temperatures were in the teens, and the cowshit was frozen.) Alongside me were a group of schoolteachers, a bubbly bunch, given the weather. We were marching in protest of the Republican governor’s legislation to strip unionized state workers of their right to negotiate wages. We were bundled up in parkas and wool caps and mufflers, and our chants rose into the cold air along with our breaths, making us imagine that our voices had power.
I was making a second loop of the Capitol, ready to turn down State Street to get a cup of coffee, when I saw Joanna. Though I hadn’t ever tried to get in touch with her, I had kept up with her, particularly during the last decade, via the magic of the Internet.
She had given up painting and taken up filmmaking. She made short documentaries. Of the seven listed on her website, I’d seen four. They were all interviews with individuals, with the exception of the one called Raising Tomatoes Naked, which was an interview with an older married couple at a naturist colony in Indiana. The films were in black-and-white. The camera rarely took its eye off its subject—a Buddhist monk, Cyrus Vance (a friend of her father’s), a Mexican teenager who worked for a drug cartel and had decapitated a couple of the cartel’s enemies. You would hear Joanna’s voice—soft, pleasant, curious but uninsistent—as she asked questions, and now and then you would see some part of her. In the interview with the Mexican boy, her hand appeared suddenly, almost creepily, like the shadow of the real thing, and then, just as suddenly, it was gone; you never saw it again. In the interview with the naturist couple, Joanna briefly showed herself from the clavicle up. She was wearing a sun hat and the sort of sunglasses that Jill St. John had worn, but whether she was otherwise naked, from the clavicle down, in deference to the customs of the colony, wasn’t clear.
There was little information about Joanna’s private life on her website, but I found interviews that had been done with her. Of the few things that she let slip about herself in the course of these interviews, one was that she was no longer married (this came up in a piece about her movie about an eighty-five-year old New York matchmaker) and the other was that one of her three children had died. She didn’t say, in this interview or any other, how or when her child had died. She simply said, “I’ve lost a child myself. There is nothing worse that I know of.”
She didn’t recognize me right away.
I said, “It’s Joe—Joe Bennett.”
We hugged each other in our bulky clothing. I felt clumsy, as if I were feeling for somebody in the dark, as if what I found there was only a representation of the person I was looking for. She was wearing a puffy down coat that was nearly the length of a sleeping bag. Her hair, long and not yet fully gray, spilled out from under a ski cap that tied under the chin, like a child’s bonnet. The light that had burned beneath the skin on her face when she was younger still burned, despite the cold.
She said she was in Madison to figure out whom to do an interview with. There was a farmer she liked, and also a young woman, a nursing student, who knew all the old protest songs and sang some of them in the Capitol Rotunda at night, where protesters were camped out. Both of Joanna’s parents had died, her father while listening to Haydn. I asked about her children, and she saw that I knew that one had died, but she told me only about two. “They’re both in art school, poor things,” she said. “I couldn’t talk them out of it.”
“What else is there but art?” I said.
Her mouth widened a little, as if the memory of drawing in insufficient light had come to her and even pleased her. And then she asked a question. It seemed clear that she’d never googled me, had perhaps not even thought about it.
“No,” I said. “No children, never married.”
I watched her breath come out of her mouth, a cloud that might have been a cartoon balloon containing a follow-up question.
I said, “I’m a monk—not literally, but, you know, I sometimes live like one, while contending with desire and envy and vanity and anger and all the rest. A monk who has a Scotch or two at night.”
“You suffer, but on a lawyer’s salary?”
“That’s one way of putting it.” I tightened the knot of my scarf a bit. The wind had picked up.
She said, “Would you let me interview you? You could recite ‘The Good Morrow.’ You must have memorized it all by now.”
I thought I heard some unkindness in her voice, disdain even, but she was smiling. Perhaps she was only teasing me. “I haven’t thought of that poem in years,” I said.
“And did you ever write that one good poem—you know, the one you said you would mutilate yourself for?”
A dozen drummers, banging on pots and buckets and actual drums, walked past us. I waited for them to pass, and then said, “I haven’t written a poem in thirty-five years. Maybe I’ll do it in my next life, if I don’t come back as a bug.”
“There must be some glory in being a bug,” Joanna said. “Think of the firefly.”
I thought of it, the male lighting up, unflaggingly, in order to attract a mate. Yes, there must be some glory in that—floating in the summer air, flashing one’s brilliance as the world darkens, not thinking of whatever might eat you, not thinking of the child running through the grass who might put you and your brilliance in a jar, not thinking at all, just being for that little while allotted to bugs.
Dwight Allen is the author of two novels, Judge (Algonquin 2003) and The Typewriter Satyr (University of Wisconsin Press 2009). His first book, The Green Suit: Stories, was reissued, with a new story, in 2011, by the University of Wisconsin. He lives in Madison.
cbr 19 / summer 2012
The Pale King
David Foster Wallace
Reviewed by Dwight Allen
the eelgrass meadow
Reviewed by Gay Davidson-Zielske
Unexpected Shiny Things
Reviewed by Gay Davidson-Zielske
Make it Stay
Reviewed by Bob Wake
A short story
Men without Meaning
A short story
Gerald Fosdal & Jack Lehman
An excerpt from the novel
David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown 2011
Reviewed by Dwight Allen
How to Levitate
It is almost impossible to read David Foster Wallace’s unfinished, posthumously published novel, The Pale King, and put his death out of your mind. The awful fact of his suicide (in 2008, when he was forty-six) has been “incised” (to use a word twice used in the opening two-page chapter, a kind of Midwestern aubade full of death, an anti-pastoral pastoral) in the forefront of your head long before the author, in the second chapter, introduces us to the first of his crew of Internal Revenue Service employees, a low-level auditor named Claude Sylvanshine, who is flying from Chicago to an IRS post in Peoria on “a terrifying thirty-seater whose pilot had pimples at the back of his neck.”
And then there is the problem, if one is the sort of reader who might want to attempt strict textual analysis, of the presence of two “David Wallace”s in the novel, both IRS employees in the Peoria office, one of whom is also the “author” and who is said to have, in addition to other afflictions, a “severe/disfiguring” skin condition, which, of course, causes people to stare at him. (The actual Wallace was somewhat ambivalent about the attention paid to him.) Wallace may have come to regard metafiction as a “permanent migraine,” but he made extensive and often hilarious use of it in The Pale King. It’s even possible to imagine that he took some pleasure in writing the long “Author, here” chapters, in which he does, among other so-called tricks, coruscating send-ups of memoirists and some wonderful bits of slapstick comedy (see, for instance, in Chapter 24, a scene in which an IRS employee tumbles from a parking lot road into a drainage ditch outside Peoria headquarters, a moment observed by the “author” from within an AMC Gremlin packed with other sweating IRS personnel). The notion that Wallace died of boredom with himself, advanced by his friend Jonathan Franzen in a 2011 New Yorker article (reprinted this spring in an essay collection called Farther Away), seems off, if the pleasure that Wallace gives us is any sign of how he felt about his work. (It is a more serious misperception to assert, as some admirers [not Franzen] wishing to confer sainthood on him have, that late-period Wallace—they are thinking mostly of the Wallace who gave the Kenyon College commencement speech—was “against” irony; it could be said that he was “against” snarkiness and cruelty, but nothing he wrote, especially The Pale King, could have been written without a highly developed sense of irony.) Wallace was an honest writer, honest about the demons that pop up in every corner of his work, and despite his public modesty and private self-loathing, it’s difficult to imagine that he didn’t experience, during the many years of his struggle to write The Pale King, any of the joy his writing so often gives his readers.
The Pale King was lovingly and painstakingly assembled by Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch, from, in Pietsch’s words, “an unorganized [i.e., unsequenced] heap of writings” found on Wallace’s desk and on computer disks. Two hundred and fifty manuscript pages, or twelve of the fifty chapters, Pietsch considered to be polished and finished. (Among these were the two “Author, here” chapters, and the near-one-hundred pages of Chapter 22, a kind of conversion story about a Chicagoland “wastoid” named Chris Fogle who is moved by a Jesuit professor’s lecture on Advanced Tax accounting to join the “Service.”) About a fifth of the novel Pietsch took from handwritten drafts, and to all of this, he appended some of the notes Wallace had made regarding characters and plot matters. In the paperback edition of the novel, published this spring, Pietsch, with the help of Wallace’s agent, Bonnie Nadell, has added four drafts of chapters not included in the hardcover version. Pietsch told me that he had decided that these four pieces, while “interesting enough,” were too “confusing or provisional” to fit into the hardcover edition, and he has not now attempted to shoehorn them into the body of the novel.
In one of these newly added scenes there is a reference to a revenue officer named Shane Drinion, a character who does not appear at all until Chapter 46, almost 450 pages into the book. Though Chapter 46 is one of the longest chapters in the book, it was not among the dozen chapters that Pietsch considered polished and finished. Pietsch told me that even though Wallace had done some editing on a typescript of the chapter, he concluded that the chapter was “still pretty raw for [Wallace]” and “definitely not finished and polished by his standards.”
Chapter 46 is set during a Happy Hour in a Peoria bar that attracts a certain grade of revenue officer, including Shane (Mr. X) Drinion, whose dweebish, blank exterior leads some of his co-workers to refer to him as “possibly the dullest human being currently alive.” (Mr. X is short for Mr. Excitement.) He is “a bit of a mouth-breather” and “there is a kind of ambient unsonic hum about him.” During the Friday afternoon Happy Hour (drink specials are “indexed to the approximate cost of gasoline and vehicle depreciation involved in the 2.3 mile drive” from the IRS office to the bar, Wallace writes with a straight face), Drinion sits across from an officer named Meredith Rand, one of the two central female characters in the novel. (The other, Toni Ware, the child of a trailer park liaison who is “begat in one car and born in another” and raped in yet others and who, like every other damaged character in the novel, eventually finds work in the IRS’s Peoria branch, inspired Wallace to write perhaps the weirdest chapter in the novel, set at a Peoria Quik Stop, and also the most brutally violent one.) Rand, who is said to be “wrist-bitingly attractive,” sees more in Drinion than others do. What she sees is a version of her husband, Ed, who worked as a “ward attendant” in a mental institution where Rand had landed as a teenager because she was a “cutter.” Rand regarded her prettiness as an affliction, a box she believed she couldn’t escape, and in response she repeatedly cut herself.
It has been often said that The Pale King is “about” boredom—Wallace’s IRS employees, each laboring in total obscurity and each beset with one wound or another, are us—but boredom is a given for Wallace, a given that he nonetheless anatomizes with brilliant, hilarious, clinical precision. (The novel is set in the mid-eighties, prior to the digital revolution, which freed Wallace from having to write about contemporary IRS agents who might, for instance, fall into drainage ditches as the result of trying to play Angry Birds while walking narrow access roads. It could be said that Wallace’s pre-iPad characters experience more varieties of boredom, including the sort that Bartleby the Scrivener experienced a century and a half ago, than do those of us glued to our screens today.) The question for every bored but somewhat self-aware character in the novel is how to come unstuck from boredom (or terminal self-absorption).
To some degree, the conversation between Rand and Drinion—in which Rand (“a yammerer of the most dire kind,” in the estimation of her colleagues) is, at various moments, charming and snarky and clever and needling—resembles a dialogue between a patient and a model therapist. The nerdy, seemingly affectless, unjudgmental Drinion pays “close, intense attention” to whatever Rand says, an attention that, as Rand sees it, has nothing to do with any romantic aspirations on his part. Drinion has the qualities that her husband, Ed, her uncredentialed mental ward “therapist” whose own special burden is cardiomyopathy, has—the capacity to listen closely and “immerse” himself in someone who is not himself or something that is not about him. This is a capacity that the extremely intelligent and extremely self-conscious Rand—a person whose defenses are elaborate but not so rigid or labyrinthine that she can’t see beyond them—recognizes in others but doesn’t fully embody herself. Like almost every other character in the novel (the “pathologically nice” Leonard Steyck, the phobic “sweater” David Cusk, the “locked-up” Christian believer Lane Dean, Jr., the logorrheic Chris Fogle, Claude Sylvanshine of the machinelike brilliance, the “author”), Rand is unhappily stuck inside herself, despite having, after her tete-a-tetes with Ed Rand, “grown up” and ceased to cut herself. She notices, for instance, that Drinion seems to get taller during the course of their conversation, but she doesn’t really pursue this observation.
Drinion is the only character in the book whom Wallace describes as “happy.” He says this in one of the notes to the novel, however, not in the body of the text. Wallace trusted his readers enough to see what it might mean if, for instance, he gave Drinion the literal ability to levitate when immersed. Drinion rises a couple of centimeters above his chair when listening to Meredith Rand, and he occasionally gets a little higher while at work. “One night someone comes into the office and sees Drinion floating upside down over his desk with his eyes glued to a complex return, Drinion himself unaware of the levitating thing by definition, since it is only when his attention is completely on something else that the levitation happens.”
Drinion has something of the Holy Fool (or Holy Nerd) about him, and he is clearly meant to be an exemplary human being, but it may be a mistake to think that he carries the moral weight of the novel, particularly in light of the fact that he is absent from the book ninety percent of the time.
At least one reviewer, Jonathan Raban in the New York Review of Books (May 12, 2011), has said that Wallace resorted to “a supernatural trick” in giving Drinion an ability to levitate. Raban went on to say that Wallace’s “basic idea of penetrating the drudgery of the grown-up world and emerging on its far side in possession of transcendent revelation” was clearly “unrealized” and that “when it came to morals, [Wallace] had a deep fundamentalist streak.”
Underlying Raban’s criticism is the assumption that a novelist such as Wallace begins with an “idea” and then simply illustrates it (or fails to). This seems like a narrow, schematic view of fiction writing and doesn’t allow for the possibility that even if a writer begins a novel with a controlling or “basic” idea—but how many novelists actually say to themselves something like, Now I will write a novel about boredom and happiness?—he can be led off in many different and contradictory directions in the course of writing. Fiction writing is surely more improvisation than it is engineering from a blueprint, and I’d guess that to most writers it is also more about scenes, characters, weather, details, jokes, and the rhythms of the sentences than it is about whatever lofty ideas can supposedly be extracted ex post facto from those more elemental things. Writers, whether avant-gardists or social realists, who are most interested in illustrating ideas are likely to be propagandists (and bores), and Wallace was neither. Wallace said somewhere that fiction writing should be “passionately moral, morally passionate,” but he was not a blowhard moralist or a Capital W writer with an agenda. He spends hardly any time in Chapter 46 writing about Drinion’s capacity to levitate. (Elsewhere in the novel, little direct attention is paid to the “idea” of transcendence, even though the possibility of it is implicit in the many scenes in which Wallace shows us the myriad, funny, heart-rending ways his characters suffer in their preoccupation with themselves.) In fact, the three moments in which Drinion levitates are set down almost in passing and with no or only minimal comment, and like Rand, we barely notice them. It may be that Wallace wished them to be barely noticed, and it may also be that, given the “definitely” unfinished state of this chapter, Wallace may have refined those brief passages further, had he continued on.
In his New Yorker article, Jonathan Franzen says that for Wallace, “Fiction was his way off the island, and as long as it was working for him . . . he’d achieved a measure of happiness and hope for himself. When his hope for fiction died, after years of struggle with the new novel, there was no other way out but death.” Twelve years ago, Michael Pietsch (a longtime friend of mine) told me that Wallace had compared the writing of The Pale King to trying to carry a big sheet of plywood through a windstorm. (In this image, one may see again Wallace’s great gift as a writer of comic pathos; he could do with words what Chaplin or Keaton could do with their bodies.) More recently, Pietsch wrote to say that he sometimes sees Wallace’s book as “a journal of his struggle to live, and an attempt to get at what makes life worthwhile.”
Franzen believes that the novel Wallace left behind was a failure, and he believes that Wallace had regarded it as such, too, and that, in effect, Wallace had come to believe that writing was no longer worthwhile. I didn’t know Wallace at all, but based on the evidence of this novel, I’d take Pietsch’s more hopeful view, that Wallace was trying to come unstuck and believed it was worth his while to try to do so and thought of his writing as a way of understanding how to do it.
And is it really true, as Franzen suggests, that Wallace saw his writing as the single source of his salvation, as “the best solution to the existential problem of solitude?” (Can there be such a thing as a “solution” to an “existential problem”? Solitude is a condition that will persist whether we are happy or severely depressed, whether we write a great, finished novel or fail at whatever task we set for ourselves. Wallace’s problem seemed to be the actual human being named David Foster Wallace.) Or is Franzen’s opinion more that of another writer trying to describe the value of his own work to himself? In her conversation with Drinion, Rand points out that it is “a child’s fantasy” to “deep down expect somebody else to gallop up and save you” from yourself. Surely Wallace understood that his writing wasn’t going to save him from himself, even if he was able to “immerse” himself in it periodically. It is Rand, rather than Drinion, of course, whom Wallace most resembles. Rand stops cutting herself because she simply stops doing it, not because someone has explained to her why she does it. (“All that matters is to not do it,” she says. “Only I can decide to stop it.”) Wallace couldn’t stop cutting himself.
But what Wallace has given us in The Pale King—however incomplete it is and whatever he may have thought of the “heap” of writing that the book was when he left it on his desk—is far from a “failure.” Despite the holes and contradictions and repetitions and narrative lines unfollowed, despite the presence of certain ingrained Wallace tics, The Pale King is full of the sort of life that we find in the books of only our greatest writers. It is imaginative, brainy, funny, beautiful, and humane. Deep into the Rand-Drinion chapter, Wallace jumps ahead to show Rand remembering (as her husband drives her home from the bar) what she felt like during the tete-a-tete with Drinion. What Rand remembers is a bit like what it sometimes feels like to read The Pale King—that happy sensation of immersion, a sensation that comes over us even as the ghost of the author swims in the air about us. Here is a part of what Rand remembers:
At one or two points she’d even felt she could feel the exact shape of her eyeballs against her lids’ insides when she blinked—she was aware when she blinked. The only kind of experience she could associate with it involved their cat that she’d had when she was a girl before it got hit by a car and the way she could sit with the cat in her lap and stroke the cat and feel the rumble of the cat’s purring and feel every bit of the texture of the cat’s warm fur and the muscle and bone beneath that, and that she could sit for long periods of time stroking the cat and feeling it with her eyes half-shut as if she was spaced out or stuporous-looking but had felt, in fact, like she was the opposite of stuporous—she felt totally aware and alive, and at the same time when she sat slowly stroking the cat with the same motion over and over it was like she forgot her name and address and almost everything else about her life for ten or twenty minutes, even though it wasn’t like spacing out at all, and she loved that cat. She missed the feel of its weight, which was like nothing else, neither heavy nor light, and at times for almost the next two or three days she felt like she feels now, like a cat.
Dwight Allen is the author of two novels, Judge (Algonquin 2003) and The Typewriter Satyr (University of Wisconsin Press 2009). His first book, The Green Suit: Stories, was reissued, with a new story, in 2011, by the University of Wisconsin. He lives in Madison.