When you reach your late fifties, as I have, the question ‘What have you done to justify your miserable existence?’ presents itself with steadily increasing insistence. I’ve formulated a number of tentative answers to that question, but one of the best I can offer is, ‘I published the first two books by David Foster Wallace.’
In an editorial career, the shocks of recognition arrive at highly irregular intervals – those moments when a manuscript grabs hold of your mind and heart and says, ‘Baby, we were made for each other.’ That’s exactly what happened when the manuscript of The Broom of the System hit my inbox at Penguin in 1986, courtesy of Bonnie Nadell. What a startlingly fresh and original book that was, a neo-postmodern extravaganza, ultra-brainy and high-spirited at a time when American fiction was mostly out strolling the strip malls or cruising the clubs. We published it as the first trade paperback original in our Contemporary American Fiction series, and it was a critical and commercial success. And this remarkable book brought David Wallace, a truly remarkable person, into my work life. I am so proud and happy that twenty-plus years later The Broom of the System is still selling steadily and drawing new readers into David’s uniquely imagined world. I was re-reading it last night, and I had to wonder, how did I ever slip this one past the Authorities? It’s a wild piece of work – hysterical realism, yo. (I read Our Mutual Friend over the summer, and it seemed totally clear to me that Charles Dickens had been deeply influenced by David Foster Wallace.)
He was the Ruby Keeler of fiction – he went out there a nobody and he came back a star. I was in awe.
In my mind David will always be young. At twenty-four when our paths crossed, he was painfully deferential, totally unworldly, woefully underdressed, but you knew that he possessed a formidable, even staggering talent and intellect. Maybe my favouritest moment in publishing ever was a reading that Penguin arranged for the CAF series at the McBurney YMCA, with T.C. Boyle, Laurie Colwin, Frank Conroy and David reading from their work, with me introducing them in alphabetical order. As the first three mature and practised literary stars strutted their stuff, David sank deeper and deeper into his seat, clearly suffering the tortures of the damned. It was his first reading EVER – what had we done? I can still taste my guilt. But then his turn came, he got up, walked to the lectern, calmly took a long sip of water, said, ‘Ahhhh,’ and read the epileptic baby/ John Irving send-up section of Broom with incredible brio. As the song goes, he blew that room away. He was the Ruby Keeler of fiction – he went out there a nobody and he came back a star. I was in awe.
But as all who knew and worked with David know, he never carried himself like a star in the least. In fact he had no defences, in my experience, against the toxins endemic to the literary−industrial complex. I vividly remember one August day in 1988 when David came down to the city for, God help us, a photo-shoot for some slick magazine on ‘the Hot Young Writers’. David had been up at Yaddo with a fast crowd – Jay McInerney, David Leavitt, Mona Simpson – and all their talk of Andrew says this and Binky does that had really knocked him sideways. That morning’s shoot, with Tama Janowitz and Christopher Coe, a very flamboyant gay novelist, camping about, had finished the job. By the time he arrived at my office for lunch he was in the midst of a full-blown anxiety attack or nervous breakdown. Oh my. So I reached back to the skill-set that the sixties had equipped us all with and calmly talked him down, just the way we used to do in the dorms when someone was having a bad trip. Trust me, it was exactly like that.
So many memories come back: that just incredibly squalid Somerville apartment he shared with Mark Costello, with those textbooks on symbolic logic whose titles I could not understand, let alone their contents. The eyestrain-causing five- and seven-page single-spaced editorial letters without a single typo that hog-tied my much slower brain. The somewhat unfortunate chewing-tobacco years. The sweetness and the vulnerability and the modesty. With a mind like his, David could have easily applied himself to some money-spinning job like, I don’t know, devising fiendishly complicated financial instruments to leave the American economy in smoking ruins. He could have done that! Instead he devoted his genius to renewing the fragile enterprise that is serious American writing. That’s serious, not solemn. He was the most idealistic of ironists, and his vision of the world was fuelled by deep wells of sincerity and a dogged quest for authenticity. Oh boy, will we miss him.