Sunday, September 14, 2008

David Foster Wallace 1962-2008

From the Los Angeles Times:
Writer David Foster Wallace found dead

David Foster Wallace was found dead last night at his home in Claremont. His wife told Claremont police that the novelist and humorist who wrote 'Infinite Jest' hanged himself Friday night. He was 46.
It's a huge loss. DFW was one of the leading writers of his generation, with an ornate style as distinctly his own as an Emily Dickinson or Herb Caen. He radiated intelligence, curiosity and compassion.

Reading a David Foster Wallace essay is like having lunch with your smartest and funniest friend just back from his latest crazy adventure. He can take you somewhere you've never been and make you feel like you have, or make you see something commonplace in a whole new way.

Before the explosive growth of the Internet, when most reading occurred via the printed page, DFW wrote the definitive magazine essay about taking a luxury cruise. The hilarious and somewhat snide masterpiece was photocopied and passed around more than any other piece of writing I can remember.

That essay is the titular gem in a collection that remains my favorite David Foster Wallace book, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments, which I've given as a gift many times. It's mostly commissioned pieces he wrote for magazines like The Atlantic and Vanity Fair and, taken as a whole, amply demonstrates his range and prodigious skill.

As a tennis player and fan, I took particular interest in ASFT's two excellent chapters on the subject. One of them is a personal history in which DFW recounts his days as a competitive junior player in downstate Illinois. A raging brain even as a kid, he viewed the sport as an exercise in physics and geometry. With his smaller size and public courts pedigree, he had to use his smarts to beat the taller, expensively trained Aryan specimens from the local country club.

The other tennis chapter is required reading for anyone interested in how professional tennis works. Wallace manages to get his arms around the entire sprawling subject: the punishing defeat of vastly talented players by even more talented peers; the repetitive myopia of life on the tour; the insane skills of people so good at playing tennis they can do it professionally; the frequently ragged early-round matches, played in obscurity on outer courts, that lead to manicured, televised finals; the personal one-dimensionality of the typical touring pro; and the struggle of the marginal player to keep a career going in a sport where you pay your own way to the next town.

It's a mesmerizing read for even a casual fan, and also feels familiar to me because Wallace uses the solid but not dominant tour player Michael Joyce as a window to the pro tennis world. Now Maria Sharapova's hitting partner, Joyce was a regular in our local USTA Challenger event every July in Winnetka when I was growing up in the Chicago suburbs, so his inclusion made the essay that much more authentic.

For all his journalistic acumen, DFW is best known as a fiction author whose discursive and ironic yet deeply sincere and yearning gyrations helped define a new era in American fiction writing.

His crowning achievement is the novel Infinite Jest, an impossibly complex, frequently hilarious, semi-penetrable 1000-page parable set in a dystopian near future. I made the mistake of starting to read Infinite Jest three days before my final year of law school. Good luck. Three months would have been more like it.

Infinite Jest also has a tennis theme. Like many fiction writers, Wallace wrote what he knew, and he knew from pot-smoking teen prodigies at a tennis academy, but like any great novel it's not really about what it's about.

On the journalistic side, though, his tennis writing is very much about tennis, and no one's done it better. I defer to David Foster Wallace's masterful summation in A Supposedly Fun Thing, but in honor of DFW, here's a short version of my occasional brushes with life on the pro tennis tour.

Challenger tournaments like the one I grew up with are the AAA baseball of pro tennis, small-time events whose players are trying to earn enough computer points to move up to the bigger events on the main tour. They attract a mix of young guys on the way up, seasoned pros working their way back from injuries, and journeymen who exist in the netherworld between Andre Agassi and you.

Consider their struggle: the Winnetka tournament, for example, attracts a field of 32 singles players, plus the players who fail in qualifying rounds to earn spots in the main draw, plus those who only play in the 16-team doubles tournament. The total prize money is $50,000, the singles champion gets $7200 and roughly half of the players get nothing.

But they all have to scrape together a plane ticket to Chicago and bear the other expenses of life on the road. When you're Pete Sampras they pay you millions to wear this shoe or play with that racket; when you're #319 in the world, you're happy when the Nike rep gives you a couple of shirts. It's routine for promising players to pack it in because the expenses grind them down, and/or find sponsors to help keep hope alive while they try to play their way up.

Some players break through not long after playing the likes of Winnetka (e.g., we had Sampras, Todd Martin, two-time U.S. Open champion Patrick Rafter, and eventual doubles world #1 Leander Paes), but many others never do.

Locals like me volunteer at these tournaments, working scoreboards, selling tickets or driving players to their hotel. It's also common for players stay in local families' homes (including ours) and save a few bucks. The player gets home-cooked meals, help with his laundry and maybe a car to drive around for a few days, and the family gets an interesting houseguest.

As a group I found the touring pros interesting and fun to be around, particularly the boisterous, golf-crazy Australians, some of the most spirited, fun-loving people I've ever met. They all had McDonalds logos on their shirts because that was the sponsor of the Australian junior tennis program.

I also liked a quiet 16-year-old English kid I drove to the hotel a few times. He was modest and shy, overshadowed by the loud, boastful guys around him in the tournament van, but he turned out to have more game than any of them. His name was Tim Henman.

Other than their absurd way of making a living they were just people, with all their quirks. One year our family hosted a Frenchman who'd only registered for Winnetka because he thought it was in Europe. Another year we had an Indian player whose time on the tour was running out. He spent most of his time calling his far-off relatives on my parents' land line and angling for a cushy job as a tennis pro in Doha, Qatar.

Hanging around with the players, you really get a sense of what life is like on the tour, and from where I sit, David Foster Wallace nailed it.

Rest in peace.

3 comments:

CyLowe said...

Thanks for the DFW post. There is a lot of common ink spilled about IJ and the more well known essays, but it's cool to see how the lesser known pieces resonated with people. "Slug" (don't ask) will be missed.

Thanks for leaving a comment over on my little slice of the blog ether. I'll check out more of your posts soon.

Martin said...

That was fantastic, Ben. Tim Henman!

I remember Paes too.

Audrey said...

Lovely. I too love this book of essays...I've always been a little mystified by tennis but this was the best thing I've ever read about the sport. Elsewhere in the book, the David Lynch one should be required reading for all freshman film students.