One day in the spring of 1995, I got a phone call at Harper’s Magazine from Dave. He was calling from a 700-foot luxury cruise ship, called the Zenith, off the coast of Florida. I’d sent him on this trip to write an article, and he’d phoned just to let me know that yes, he was on board, as planned, and, by the way, what exactly was his magazine assignment again?
I paused before answering.
Telling Dave what to write about was a tricky proposition. In his previous non-fiction piece for Harper’s, in which he’d written about the Illinois State Fair, Dave had, within the first few lines of the piece, blown up any idea that he considered himself a conventional journalist and also gleefully detonated the notion that I, his editor, knew what I was doing.
Let me quote from that piece:
‘I’m fresh in from the East Coast, for an East Coast magazine,’ he wrote. ‘Why exactly they’re interested in the Illinois State Fair remains unclear to me. I suspect that every so often editors at East Coast magazines slap their foreheads and remember that about ninety per cent of the United States lies between the coasts, and figure they’ll engage somebody to do pith-helmeted anthropological reporting on something rural and heartlandish.’
Ah, to be cleverly ridiculed in the pages of one’s own magazine. So now, as Dave floated somewhere off the coast of Florida, I knew that whatever answer I gave him could be subject to inclusion in the piece itself, and perhaps even a source of further mockery.
But there was another reason I hesitated to answer his question. In telling Dave what the magazine assignment was, I might accidentally suggest what not to do, which could be unwise. The smart thing would be to just let Dave and his imagination and neuroses run wild. In his piece on the Illinois State Fair, curiosity and anxiety had combined again and again to great effect.
I figured that the best thing was to give Dave no editorial guidance whatsoever. Not a word. So, no, there was no particular assignment, except that he was to be Dave Wallace on the spotless cruise ship ploughing through the aquamarine waters of the Caribbean. I said, ‘There’s nothing else I can tell you, Dave.’ There was a pause. I’m willing to bet Dave made one of his lightning-quick facial grimaces before responding, ‘Okay.’ He seemed simultaneously relieved and amused, like he knew something I didn’t – which was, of course, already true.
I like to think of that conversation now because I know more or less what happened next. Dave – big, fleshy, semi-shaven Dave Wallace, with his bandana and his sneakers and his quick smile – explored that huge luxury ship, inspecting its many restaurants and gaming rooms and lounges, all twelve decks and 1,374 passengers, their acres of horrifying flesh soon frying in the sun. He piled up tens of thousands of fabulous words describing the ship and its inhabitants. As for that frying flesh, he’d write, ‘I have seen every type of pre-melanomic lesion, liver spot, eczema, wart, papular cyst, pot belly, femoral cellulite, varicosity, collagen and silicone enhancement, bad tint, hair transplants that have not taken – i.e., I have seen nearly naked a lot of people I would prefer not to have seen nearly naked.’ These are the kinds of details that sickeningly thrilled him.
Naturally, though, Dave found the ship’s relentless pampering highly stressful, so he semi-agoraphobically retreated to his room, especially to the shower, of which he said, ‘itself overachieves in a very big way. The hot setting’s water is exfoliatingly hot, but it only takes one preset manipulation of the shower knob to get perfect 98.6 degree water. My own personal home should have such water pressure: the shower-head’s force pins you helplessly to the stall’s opposite wall, and the head’s massage setting makes your eyes roll up and your sphincter just about give…
‘But all this is still small potatoes compared with my room’s fascinating and potentially malevolent toilet. A harmonious concordance of elegant form and vigorous function, flanked by rolls of tissue so soft as to be without perforates for tearing, my toilet has above it this sign: THIS TOILET IS CONNECTED TO A VACUUM SEWAGE SYSTEM. PLEASE DO NOT THROW INTO THE TOILET ANYTHING OTHER THAN ORDINARY TOILET WASTE AND TOILET PAPER. The toilet’s flush produces a brief but traumatizing sound, a kind of held, high-B gargle, as of some gastric disturbance on a cosmic scale. Along with this sound comes a suction so awesomely powerful that it’s both scary and strangely comforting: your waste seems less removed than hurled from you, and with a velocity that lets you feel as though the waste is going to end up someplace so far away that it will have become an abstraction, a kind of existential sewage-treatment system.’
He loved writing that, I know he did.
A few months after his call, Dave turned in an ocean-liner of a magazine piece, way too big to dock. We devoted twenty-four entire pages of the magazine to the article and, but for the need to run some advertising, would have included more. Although the article was laced with Dave’s obsession with mortality and yes, even references to suicide, his attentive detail to his fellow travellers revealed a kind of love for them. While aboard, Dave surely sensed he was on to something big, something cohesive and funny and utterly original. He must have had fun writing that piece, as self-lacerating as it was, and so this is how I prefer to remember Dave. Smiling. Laughing. Happy that he just wrote something great.