Posted on: September 17, 2008 1:50 pm
Edited on: September 20, 2008 11:59 pm

The David Foster Wallace I Sorta Knew

By now you may have learned that writer David Foster Wallace died over the weekend. He apparently committed suicide at age 46 in California, where he taught creative writing at Pomona College.

My wife, seven years his senior, was his babysitter during their childhoods in Urbana, Illinois. Her mom -- my mother-in-law -- was particularly fond of him as he came of school age. He'd let himself in through her kitchen door, demolish the batch of chocolate chip cookies she'd made and recount the rigors of kindergarten. They stayed in touch for the next forty years, though I didn't know of their friendship when I showed up at her house one weekend ten years ago with a copy of his novel, Infinite Jest, in my shoulder bag. I was completely absorbed in the book, which totaled over 1,000 pages, had footnotes that were longer than the chapters of most books and required a dictionary at the ready. IJ, which established Wallace as a literary superstar, was a dark comedy that you either put down after ten pages or attempted to read without putting it down. I was in the latter group, totally absorbed and flipping pages like a runner who sets off knowing that only a good muscle burn will bring relief.

Mom knew Wallace had become an author, but hadn't known that I was making my way through everything he'd written -- novels, shorts stories, magazine articles, essays, literary criticism. She sent him a note to say hello and let him know that his Number One fan had married his babysitter. His reply contained a brief thank you to me, and a long recollection of their time as neighbors when he was young. It was full of trust, respect and a genuine affection that had never left him after four decades and hundreds of thousands of words.

But so I sat down to write a tribute to him (using the term "But so..." to start a paragraph is a device I'm blatantly ripping off from him) because I know a lot about him, the sad circumstances of his death, etc. and so on ("etc. and so on" being another trademark device (as is this wacky use of parentheses within parentheses) by the way). In the end I concluded that they're all just words, a bunch of inadequate words to say we've lost somebody's son, somebody's brother, somebody's husband, somebody's family friend. Somebody's favorite author.

I realized anyone can Google all that in the form of literary tributes and fan sites, but the community on this site might not know of Wallace's enthusiasm for sport, and tennis sport in particular.

He was a competitive player on the Junior circuit during high school, and described himself to interviewer Charlie Rose as "good, something short of very good." He practiced drills with my brother-in-law, who was bigger, stronger, more athletic and had better hand-eye coordination than Wallace, but was no match when it came to studying and comprehending the poetry, math, physics and metaphysics of the game. When he stopped playing on a competitive level, he started to write about tennis on a level that hadn't previously made it to print. Following are some of my favorite excerpts from his writings on the game. (Note: The scene in this first excerpt comes immediately before a mini-tornado strikes during a practice drill...what we called a vortex or dust devil in the cornfields. It picked Wallace up and slammed him face-first into the cyclone fence surrounding the court. His sister later said he looked like a waffle).

"Hessel Park was scented heavily with cheese from the massive Kraft factory at Champaign's western limit, and it had wonderful expensive soft Har-Tru courts of such a deep piney color that the flights of the fluorescent balls stayed on one's visual screen for a few extra seconds, leaving trails, is also why the angles and hieroglyphs involved in butterfly drill seem important. But the crux here is that butterflies are primarily a conditioning drill: both players have to get from one side of the court to the other between each stroke, and once the initial pain and wind-sucking are over--assuming you're a kid who's in absurd shape because he spends countless mindless hours jumping rope or running laps backward or doing star-drills between the court's corners or straight sprints back and forth along the perfect furrows of early beanfields each morning--once the first pain and fatigue of butterflies are got through, if both guys are good enough so that there are few unforced errors to break up the rally, a kind of fugue-state opens up inside you where your concentration telescopes toward a still point and you lose awareness of your limbs and the soft shush of your shoe's slide (you have to slide out of a run on Har-Tru) and whatever's outside the lines of the court, and pretty much all you know then is the bright ball and the octangled butterfly outline of its trail across the billiard green of the court."
-David Foster Wallace, "Tennis, Trigonometry, Tornadoes: A Midwestern Boyhood". Harper's Magazine Vol. 283, No. 1699; Dec. 1991. [NOTES: Collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" as "Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley".]

"Tennis is the most beautiful sport there is. It is also the most demanding. It requires body control, hand-eye coordination, quickness, flat-out speed, endurance, and that strange mix of caution and abandon we call courage. It also requires SMARTS. Just one single shot in one exchange in one-point of a high-level match is a nightmare of mechanical abilities...Basketball comes close, but it's a team sport and lacks tennis's primal mano a mano intensity. Boxing might come close— at least at the lighter weight divisions— but the actual physical damage the fighters inflict on each other makes it too concretely brutal to be really beautiful— a level of abstraction and formality (i.e., "play") is necessary for a sport to possess true metaphysical beauty (in my opinion)...
...One answer to why public interest in men's tennis has been on the wane in recent years is an essential and unpretty thugishness about the power-baseline style that's become dominant on the tour. Watch Agassi closely sometime...he's amazingly absent of finesse, with movements that look more like a heavy-metal musician's than an athlete's...what a top PBer really resembles is film of the old Soviet Union putting down a rebellion. It's awesome, but brutally so, with a grinding, faceless quality about its power that renders that power curiously dull and empty...
...John McEnroe...was arguably the best serve-and-volley man of all time, but then McEnroe was an exception to pretty much every predictive norm there was. At his peak (say 1980 to 1984), he was the greatest tennis player who ever lived—the most talented, the most beautiful, the most tormented: a genius. For me, watching McEnroe don a blue polyester blazer and do stiff lame truistic color commentary for TV is like watching Faulkner do a Gap ad."
-David Foster Wallace, "The String Theory, " from Esquire Magazine.
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