Well that sucks.
David Foster Wallace, 46, hanged himself Friday.
He was a smart, sad, riotous writer who gave self-consciousness a language that actually sounded natural at the end of the weirdly denatured 20th century. You can see his brain at work here, or hear it here, or read it in anything he ever wrote. I admired the hell out of him, and like a lot of people I never even made it all the way through his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, which dovetails nicely enough with The Browser’s M.O. Truth be told I like his nonfiction better, which may be the journalist in me, or could just be an attention-span issue
But without wanting to horn in on the meant-more-to-me grief-fest that inevitably accompanies the untimely deaths of cult figures (remember Kurt Cobain — to whom Wallace bore a more bookish passing resemblance?), and having never met the guy, I did have some curious points of connection.
For instance: I, formerly a competitive junior tennis player, was reading Infinite Jest, much of which is set in an academy for tennis prodigies, when I met the woman who was to become my first and so far only wife. (Hi Clair.) We were at a weekend-long beach-house-based binge-drink, having arrived under separate cover, so to speak, and fell irrevocably and probably somewhat rudely in love there. She later told me she was impressed with my choice of reading material. We were both just precisely that pretentious at the time. Once I knew she liked me, I never did bother to finish the book, which, in fairness, and speaking as an editor, is about half again too long. I somehow never imagined, from that vantage, that Wallace was only six years older than me.
But before I put Infinite Jest aside, I stumbled across something that stunned me even more than the pyrotechnics of Wallace’s prose. It was this passage, regarding the tattoo obsession of detoxing lawyer Tiny Ewell, specifically as regards “one synthetic-narc-addicted kid” named Skull, “who’d been a walking exhibition of high-regret ink.”
On Skull’s back a half-m.-long skeleton in a black robe and cowl playing the violin in the wind on a crag with THE DEAD in maroon on a vertical gonfalonish banner unfurling below; on one biceps either an icepick or a mucronate dagger, and down both forearms a kind of St. Vitus’s dance of leather-winged dragons with the words — on both forearms — HOW DO YOU LIK YOUR BLUEYED BOY NOW MR DEATH!?, the typos of which, Tiny felt, only served to heighten Skull’s whole general tatt-gestalt’s intended effect, which Tiny presumed was primarily to repel.” (pg. 208, paperback)
Why, you might ask, did this particular passage, out of 1,079 heavily footnoted pages, make such a claim on my attention? Well, because in 1992, four years before Infinite Jest‘s publication, I had not only tattooed those same words on my arm, but the tattoo artist who did the job had in fact fucked up and inserted one of the very same typos. And I had written about it in Willamette Week, the alternative weekly of the town where I then lived, Portland, Oregon.
If you click on the facsimile above, you can learn that not only are the words secondhand (they’re from e.e. cummings’ poem “BUFFALO BILL’S”), but the very idea of having them tattooed on my biceps was a hand-me-down (from Southern-gothic novelist Harry Crews). So the reference was out there for the plucking, and surely the literary polymath David Foster Wallace was familiar with the line, via cummings, or with the line as a tattoo, via Crews, or both. But the line as a tattoo with typos? On a “walking exhibition of high-regret ink”?
Here’s part of what I had written:
The artist working on my arm has allowed me to choose music to listen to on the boombox in the corner. I’d started with Sly and the Family Stone to ease myself into the ordeal, and it had helped. But we were getting close to done, and I wanted something climactic and loud. I asked the photographer to plug in the Butthole Surfers’ Locust Abortion Technician. He hit Play. The tape was cued to “Sweat Loaf,” and the gently eerie child’s voice wafted into the room.
What does regret mean?
Well, son, you know the funny thing about regret is it’s better to regret something you have done than to regret something you haven’t done.
At that moment, and I am not making this up, the artist leaned back and exhaled “Oh, shit.”
Oh shit indeed, thought I. “What!?!”
“I misspelled ‘blueeyed.’ I’ve never misspelled anything.” I looked down at my arm, and, sure enough, she’d left out the middle E. “Blueyed.” A typo on my arm.”
Blueyed minus its middle E, just like on Skull’s forearm. Weird, no?
Now I’m not suggesting for a second that David Foster Wallace read my story and pinched the typo bit, and if somehow he did I’d be nothing but honored. I feel certain he must’ve lifted it from Harry Crews, who had his version of the verse lettered beneath a large skull (Skull — get it?), and used his imagination to insert the typos (I especially appreciate “lik” for “like”) to help the tattoo better illustrate regret, which was the whole point of the passage, best I can tell.
But still, a story.
Too bad he killed himself. That’s one thing you can never live to regret.
Let’s let e.e. cummings ride this one out:
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
he was a handsome man
and what I want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy