Beyond the Trouble, More Trouble

David Foster Wallace in New York, 1997.Photo: Janette Beckman/Retna LTD.

The last time I spoke to David Wallace—who preferred to be called Dave, but I never quite could—was ten years ago, when I called him in his cabin in Bloomington, Illinois, from a pay phone at a halfway house for recovering drug addicts in Wilton, Connecticut. The conversation was unfortunately unmemorable, so I can’t say if he talked me off the ledge or if I told him I was doing great, which could have been a lie or the truth—it changed every day. I do know it was good to hear his voice, which was always gentle, and that there had to have been something positive about talking to the premier novelist of the sober residence while living in such a facility.

I never knew David well, but during the last fin de siècle era of New York City existence I got to know him a little bit: He was experiencing a literary rise at the same time that I was going through a more generalized kind of fall. Somehow, we collided at the nexus of these opposing trajectories, and I could not tell you exactly what went down, but it seems perfectly possible to me that by the time we stopped talking in a terrible huff, there were involved many editors, agents, publishers/lawyers, guns, money/therapists, hospitals, ambulances.

I met him at a party sponsored by Open City, a literary magazine underwritten by the terrifically promising novelist Rob Bingham, who has since died of a heroin overdose after his own bout with authorial almost-fame. The gathering was most likely at Rob’s Tribeca loft, which was the size of LAX, and while Open City was an alleged artistic undertaking—it may even have been—as far as most of us knew it was an excuse to drink too much, or to snort junk under Rob’s billiards table until the night closed in. For some stupid reason, no one ever had the sense to separate the truly desperate from the merely decadent, we were all doing too many drugs together at the same time, the people who could handle it with the people who were going to end up dead and worse, and we were too young to see where all this was going to lead. And into this mess walked David Wallace one spring evening, do-rag and all. I don’t think he exactly told me that he was a genius, but I must have gotten that impression, because I believe I was instantly impressed by something about him. Maybe it was just the way he was so open and curious, or the way he was so taken with the silver lamé leotard I was wearing.

I took him around with me some time after that: to see Beat Rodeo on Monday night at the Ludlow Street Café, which is no more, and for seafood and soda at the Grand Central Oyster Bar, which is forever. He would stay on the Upper East Side with his buddy Jonathan Franzen, and spend many hours editing some mysterious epic project with Michael Pietsch at Little, Brown. I would say the time I spent with him was very grunge Salingeresque. Looking back, I am just so very sorry he was not less fragile and I was not less crazy. Looking back, I’m not sure which philosophy of life is more sound: the person who is full of regret, or the one who says je ne regrette rien. I am even less sure which mode of thinking finally leads one to say enough is enough, which approach is at long last more tiring.

By appearances, it would have seemed to me that David was doing great, living in Southern California, writing terrific books and pieces, recently married, teaching at a prestigious college. I am not stupid enough to believe that depression does not afflict a person whose life is good, but if he could get by in a hovel in the middle of the Midwest, surely these elements of happy life—love, sunshine, stability—had to be a plus. These things are real, genuine, the stuff depression blocks you from even getting close to. Furthermore, I thought David, at 46, was at a safe age, when things are most likely to be okay or okay enough: the mad search for sex and success that consumes one’s twenties, and then leaves a hangover into your thirties, is done with; the sense of failure, the feeling that it’s all been a waste, that hits after 50 hasn’t come yet. Middle age, which might be a crisis, can also be a calm.

That’s where I would have put David. If I had to guess.

So here is the miserable truth that those of us who are given to depression are forced to face when David Foster Wallace commits suicide: It didn’t and doesn’t turn out well. There is no happy ending to the story of sorrow if you are born with a predilection for despair. The world is, after all, a coarse and brutal and cruel place. It’s only a matter of how long you can live with it.

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Beyond the Trouble, More Trouble