A New Brilliant Start

Nancy Crampton
David Foster Wallace, New York City, 2003

D.T. Max’s short biography, the first to be written about David Foster Wallace, comes out of an article he wrote in 2009 for The New Yorker. The article, which contained a compressed account of Wallace’s life, was primarily about his struggle to write another novel after his virtuosic Infinite Jest, published in 1996. In expanding the article into a longer account of Wallace’s life, Max offers much new, engrossing information, though he has lost some of the tension of the original: Wallace’s problem was what to do after you’ve written the best—and also the most ardently beloved and influential—avant-garde novel of recent decades. Infinite Jest, Max wrote in The New Yorker, was a

vast investigation into America as the land of addictions: to television, to drugs, to loneliness. The book comes to center on a halfway-house supervisor named Don Gately, a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, who, with great effort, resists these enticements. “What’s unendurable is what his own head could make of it all,” Gately thinks near the end. “But he could choose not to listen.”

Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story is steadily chronological, following the trail of Wallace’s life from his birth to his suicide in 2008 at age forty-six. Although Max discusses the writing that Wallace was working on at a given time, the weight of the book falls on the detailed, factual account of events, pieced together from Wallace’s archives and interviews with his family, friends, colleagues, and students.

But there’s an odd moment when Wallace’s fiction suddenly looms out of the background and occludes Max’s facts. It happens when Max is introducing a person in Wallace’s life called Big Craig. Big Craig was a supervisor at Granada House, a Boston-area halfway house where Wallace lived in his late twenties, after having had a breakdown, dropped out of the graduate philosophy program at Harvard, and completed a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program at McLean Hospital. His four weeks at McLean, Max writes, “changed his life.” Wallace, a heavy drug user since his teens, had first joined AA several years earlier, but sobriety hadn’t stuck. Only at McLean did the staff convince him that “if he didn’t stop abusing [drugs and alcohol] he would be dead by thirty,” and further convinced him that he couldn’t simply return to his old life after four weeks in rehab and expect to stay sober. Wallace followed the advice of the McLean staff after his program ended and moved into Granada House.

Here, we learn from Max, Wallace was quick to apprehend the literary possibilities of his situation. Residents sat around for hours talking about their lives. Wallace listened and took copious notes. Big Craig was a recovering Demerol addict, former burglar, and ex-convict from a working-class family on Boston’s North Shore who came to Granada House as…

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