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Fighting to write: a short reminiscence of D.F. Wallace.

Between April Fool's Day and the Fourth of July, 1989, I wrote a small book with David Foster Wallace.

Wallace and I were splitting a two-bedroom flop in the soot-path of the Monsignor McGrath Highway, Boston. Wallace studied philosophy at Harvard. I practiced something not dissimilar at a securities firm downtown. Bush was president, TV sucked, and the natives were restless.

When you live in squalor, everybody gets the same flu. Our germ arrived, as most germs do, from New York City. An old beatnik buddy of mine, freeloading over the weekend, carried the infection in his luggage. I remember shooting hoops a raw Saturday at Saint Anthony of Padua's, wiping our runny noses on an increasingly slimy, rocklike basketball. Back at our tenement, the freeloader blasted an unmarked tape: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back by something called Public Enemy.

That was the summer Tone Loc's "Funky Cold Medina" hit number one, the fastest-selling single ever, going triple platinum in August. There was live rap at the Middle East in Central Square. College radio stations, playing chicken with the FCC, aired incitements named "911 Is a Joke" and "Fuck tha Police." Whole afternoons were spoken for among racks of new and used EPs and LPs at Sam Goody's and Underground Sound and four other record stores that no longer exist. Boston was waking up to a nasty little gang war and the BPD was seizing N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton, as if the tape were wanted for murder.

Wallace thought rap the assassin of language, culture, order. He said this as if he were rather fond of the trio, and would miss them when they were dead. But his was an engrossed, doting hatred. He listened to rap five times more intensely than anybody else. Maybe Wallace was rooting for language and culture. Then again, maybe not.

Don't be misled. I wrote a book with David Foster Wallace, but was never his collaborator. Our co-authorship was more like chess by mail. Wallace was up to his butt in Girl with Curious Hair publicity and research for a massive nonfiction piece about porn actors, while more or less getting a Ph.D. in aesthetics. I'd write a thousand words about Dr. King or the Fresh Prince or whatever seemed burningest then, and give my work to Wallace. He would disappear, inhale Pop Tarts, exhale cigarettes, curse his keyboard, and emerge three hours later with an urgent twenty-page reply.

There was no shortage of chaos around 35 Houghton Street, apartment 2. Lost bills went unpaid. The phone rang at 3:00 A.M. and women banged on the back door two hours later. The big books were Vollmann's Rainbow Stories, Bangs's Psychotic Reactions, Didion's Slouching towards Jerusalem, all of which sat stacked, bindings broken, atop the john, a place of readerly honor. Our downstairs neighbor was a burly furniture mover and self-proclaimed World's Biggest David Foster Wallace Fan, who never missed an opportunity to stop by and watch cop shows with his Favorite Living Writer. "Not that Broom of the System isn't a piece of shit, mind you," the furniture mover informed Wallace. "It's just less of a piece of shit than anything else being published." The furniture mover's girlfriend was called "the Lizard," a runaway debutante who wore 82nd Airborne T-shirts. The Lizard also enjoyed Wallace's work. Public Enemy seemed to cap the decor.

Things were a little better in the daylight. Wallace set timetables for his work, intricate as the Croton-on-Hudson local. Get up. Talk on phone with porn actress famous for giving screen blow jobs. Hang up. Ask: is the porn queen an actress? Look up actress in the OED. Actress: a female actor. Look up actor: one who acts in a drama. Surely a blow job is an act. OK then: is a blow job drama?

For relief, dig Kool Moe Dee while taking the morning's second shower. Ask: is knowledge power, as KMD exults? Or does the rapper really mean power is knowledge?

Goddamn, Wallace realizes, toweling down, that's Friedrich frickin' Nietzsche! Listen again to Kool Moe Dee with German aesthetic fascism in mind; picture Nietzsche in raparound shades, the blood-and-iron gangsta of hip-hop, yelling I'M HUGE into a mike, now out in the alley kicking the shit out of a hapless Walt Whitman. I'm bigger than you, Kool Moe Neetzsche jabbers at Whitman, Yeah, I'm in the muthafuckin house!

Now Wallace must rush: boot it up to write it down, eight hours of mad scribbling and crossing-out, trips to the dictionary, the shower, the dictionary, ransacking the thought, and through five rewrites, the Nietzsche flash becomes thirty-seven pages, some of which will make sense to their creator the next day. Or the day after, if it turns out tomorrow is a fine day to restore culture and order to the sock drawer.

Wallace is the smartest human I have ever known, plus the quickest, but he fights to write, which is odd considering the plenty of his talents. I could never tell who, or what, he was fighting with. He's both brutal worker and brutal blow-off. He could bleed to death watching game shows, yet routinely puts out twenty-five thousand careful words a day, then rides back slashing, an editorial Idi Amin.

You will see no trace of this on his published page - no sign of struggle, as crime scene cops say. A reviewer once called David Foster Wallace a "loquacious angel." And, yes, his writing is often sublime, but his writing of it is more like a Hell's Angel than a loquacious one.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Review of Contemporary Fiction
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Author:Costello, Mark
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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