Lose The Goddamned Do-Rag: David Foster Wallace-A Belated Apology
I can’t remember when I first became aware of David Foster Wallace. Sometime in the mid-90’s, I think. I was immediately on my guard. Triple names usually bode ill: Lee Harvey Oswald, John Wilkes Booth, Mary Joe Kopechne, David Lee Roth, Bozo The Clown…QED. That was strike one.
Then there was the picture of DFW that I kept coming across. A fleshy-faced tax-payer who looked like he hadn’t missed many meals, gazing soulfully/sulkily to one side, a do-rag covering his tonsure.
On a Glock-wielding, South Central Blood flashing bejeweled fangs and furiously throwing cryptic gang signs, a do-rag looks risible enough. On a podgy, middle-class white-boy, it’s an absurdity too far and kicks my immune system into overdrive.
What’s the subtext here? Is it a nod to gangster chic? A show of solidarity with Rosie the Riveter? Is he auditioning for a pirate movie? Actually, you know what? I don’t give a shit. Do-rag = Douche bag…erm..probably. Strike two.
Then there was the hype. People whose judgement I respect less than my cat’s were pumping out hysterical encomiums at a rate that made me suspect they were being paid by the syllable. People kept comparing DFW to Pynchon. “The heir to Thomas Pynchon,” wrote Douglas Kennedy. Strike three. Yerrrr ouuuttt…
Let me explain. As a young man in the late 60’s and early 70’s, I gravitated towards the ‘hippie’ sub-culture. I was by no means a natural hippy. I was not a pacifist. I did not eschew aggression.
In fact, I was a bit of a thug. I did not think that Sgt. Pepper was a palimpsest containing a hidden guide to The Meaning Of Life. I did not believe that ‘bad vibes’ were as destructive as napalm and I flat-out laughed at the notion that The Grateful Dead knew anything that I didn’t.
In those days and in those circles, there were three sacred texts: The Lord of the Rings; The Teachings of Don Juan and Gravity’s Rainbow.
The first, I’d read and loved as a 10 year-old. When I tried to re-read it in my late teens, just to see what all those hippie numb-skulls were channeling, I discovered that I’d developed a powerful allergy to elves, magic rings, wizards and all the rest of the Middle Earth bullshit that the incontinent Tolkien churned out at such length. And yet, countless hippies looked to LOTR as some sort of blueprint for a lost Elysium, a world that we could (given enough Lebanese hash, Afghan sheepskin coats and patchouli oil) reconstruct in England’s green and pleasant land.
It was considered a work of profound philosophical and moral depth (a notion so preposterous that anyone who entertained it for a nano-second was revealed as a cretin).
But the Great Cretin Drought of 1971 that I longed for never happened and I lost count of the hippies who introduced themselves as ‘Bilbo’, ‘Frodo’ or ‘Gandalf’. This last was especially popular. I must have met a hundred lank-haired, cape-wearing nincompoops who called themselves ‘Gandalf’ and they were all of a piece. They attempted to cultivate an air of command, of hidden powers; they practiced a piercing gaze that made them appear psychotic. Mostly, however, what they did was take drugs, spout ill-considered drivel and try to persuade hippy girls that their powers extended to the bedroom.
I was more successful in that respect (seriously, dude…did you think I was hanging around for the high-quality conversation?). I would gaze into some girl’s eyes, contrive to look sorely troubled and moved and say, “You’re like Galadriel…”. The saps loved it. They yearned to be Elven princesses and were happy to consider me Aragorn son of Arathorn son of Kiddieporn, wielder of The Sword That Was Broken But Was Sent Back To Customer Services For Fixing. Christ…the things we do for sex, eh, boys?
The second holy scripture was Castenada’s The Teachings Of Don Juan, a book of half-baked mystical mumbo-jumbo, the illegitimate love-child of Madam Blavatsky and Speedy Gonzales. It was a volume so eye-wateringly moronic, so super-charged with utter meaninglessness that a 10 minute speed scan gave me all I needed to know. I became so adept at faux-mystical blather a la Don Juan that I was widely regarded as a ‘deep thinker’. The horror, the horror…
The third sacred text was Gravity’s Rainbow. I read it. I loathed it. I loathed it for its self-indulgence and its leaden ‘humour’ but most of all, I loathed it because people I held in contempt loved it.
I seem to have digressed. Fuck it. It’s my blog. I’ll digress if I want to. My point is that comparing DFW to Pynchon was not going to win me over. And so, for these many years past, I’ve managed to avoid reading a single word of DFW’s. Until a week ago.
Browsing the stock in a local charity shop, I came across a volume by DFW called Consider The Lobster and Other Essays. Out of curiosity, I picked it up. I opened it at random and found myself reading an essay entitled Authority and American Usage. Sucker punched. Me, I mean.
As a man who’s owned the Complete OED and Mencken’s The American Language for 30 years; a man who used to turn eagerly to William Safire’s On Language column in the NYT Sunday Magazine every week; a man who wants to scream every time some half-wit journalist or politician uses the phrase ‘fit for purpose’, nothing could have been better calculated to draw me in.
I bought the book and have just finished reading it. Honour demands that I make a public apology to the shade of David Foster Wallace. Forgive me. I let my prejudices get in the way of my judgement. You were an extraordinarily fine writer.
Now I’ll have to read his fiction. I’d appreciate it if any of you have any recommendations to make. Should I just go straight to Infinite Jest or start at the beginning and work through his fiction?