That kind of praise had given Wallace some stature but little real comfort by 1989. He was living with his closest friend, Mark Costello, an Amherst roommate who would go on to write, among other novels, Big If, a National Book Award finalist. They had a dumpy apartment with milk-crate furniture in “a sagging clapboard triple-decker,” Costello says, in Somerville, Massachusetts, in a neighborhood with “opera from the windows, tough guys in the street, Madonnas on the lawns.” Wallace looked less like a literary talent and more like a guy who’d given up high-level tennis for the parking lot at 7-Eleven. He’d soured on his own fiction, which seemed to him empty, and enrolled in a Harvard graduate program in philosophy that began that fall. But the academy and its politics didn’t hold the answer either, and Wallace was drinking heavily to try to dull an increasingly severe depression.
In November, Wallace told Harvard health authorities that he felt he was a threat to himself, and he was sent to a locked ward at McLean Hospital, the well-known psychiatric institution in Belmont, Massachusetts. The head of the Whiting Foundation heard the news and asked Mary Karr, who had recently won a Whiting Award for her poetry and was living nearby with her husband, if she would go see Wallace when he was in detox.
At first, she didn’t like him, she says; he was both pretentious and fawning. Just seven years older, she didn’t take to being called “Miss Karr.” She knew he was meant to be “some kind of genius,” but, she says, “I was over intellect.” Karr was not yet the author of her memoir The Liars’ Club, but she already had that voice, funny and bracing and blunt. Wallace was taken with her. Later that winter, he made Costello drive him the width of the city to “accidentally on purpose” catch a crowd leaving a basement meeting at a big stone church in Harvard Square. They stood in the snow, Costello recalls, and Wallace “pointed to a harried but beautiful woman in a sixties-type overcoat (knee-length, like Ethel Kennedy circa 1965) and said, ‘That’s Mary Karr.’ ”
Karr was battling to get sober herself. She and Wallace attended the same therapy groups, and she volunteered at the halfway house he lived in, Granada House. In Lit, she describes walking into the “shambling” building for the first time: “I expect to find tattooed thugs and strippers and former felons, which I do.” But there was a professor and an ex-lawyer too—a democracy of misery. Wallace was tutoring a former hooker trying to get her GED. Before romance became involved, he and Karr talked books. And Karr spoke her mind.
“I hated The Broom of the System,” Karr says. “I thought it was one of the worst books ever written.” She felt Wallace was “showing off,” writing fiction that pointed to all that he’d read rather than stirring feeling in the reader. And wasn’t that the point? If the literary bright white guys were going to follow in the line of the bright white guys of a generation before, she wasn’t interested.
Her tough talk didn’t dampen Wallace’s enthusiasm. The fact that she was “outside the amen circle of metafiction was interesting to him,” Costello says, and her lucid, personal prose captivated Wallace: Costello remembers Wallace later recounting, in detail, a traumatic episode in the childhood memoir Karr was just beginning to write. It was the kernel of The Liars’ Club, “the place where Mary found the famous voice of that book, part Flannery O’Connor and part Stop-Time.” Wallace heard her out when she tried to pry him from the clutches of the brainiacs who left her cold. That critique would echo.
“I was basically running the same line on him,” Franzen says. He thought Wallace was favoring the in-crowd at the expense of the broader audience, though some critics were saying the same of Franzen then. Their relationship was beginning to bear some resemblance to the competitive friendship at the center of Freedom, with Richard Katz in a Wallace-like role: “And the eternally tormenting question for Walter … was whether Richard was the little brother or the big brother, the fuckup or the hero, the beloved damaged friend or the dangerous rival.”
“In hindsight it was kind of a mean letter I wrote about Girl With Curious Hair,” Franzen says, referring to the Wallace story collection that got scant attention when it came out, three months before he was hospitalized. Franzen says he wrote Wallace that “ ‘there’s one story in here that has actual emotional content, as far as I can tell.’ And he said, ‘Oh my God, that’s the one story in that collection I hate.’ ” It was “a prickly correspondence,” Franzen says. “So much so that at one point he wrote, ‘You seem so mad at me. Why do you want to be my friend?’ ”