David Foster Wallace was no fan of cities. He used to complain to friends that they left him riled up. Being in New York City, he once wrote to the then-fiction editor of Playboy, Alice Turner, “My whole nervous system seems to be on the outside of my body." Teaching at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., toward the end of his life, he avoided Los Angeles whenever he could. Boston, the inspiration for "Infinite Jest," he put down as "this soot-fest city."
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
Chicago was different — at least somewhat. Wallace grew up in Champaign-Urbana in the '60s and '70s, and Chicago was his big city. When his agent sold his first novel, "The Broom of the System," to Penguin at the end of 1985 — Wallace was 23 years old — he celebrated at the restaurant Printers Row with his girlfriend, a Chicagoan. Later, they planned a church wedding in the area, though it never came off. And Wallace read at Barbara's Bookstore more than once and sat, in trademark yellow bandanna, chewing tobacco, for an interview with the Tribune on the publication of "Infinite Jest" in 1996. "I wanted to do a book that was sad," he told Mark Caro. "That was really the only idea that was in my head."
Wallace was teaching during these years at Illinois State University in Bloomington-Normal ("Blormal," in his phrase). One of his grad students was Jason Hammel, who had a taste for post-modern literature. Hammel wound up becoming a restaurateur; he owns Lula Cafe in Logan Square and Nightwood in Pilsen. He was one of Wallace's favorites, which wasn't always easy to discern, as Wallace was a fierce critic of Hammel's writing style.
"Really what you have to do is present emotions that matter," he lectured. But when Hammel told Wallace of his career choice, Wallace asked him how he was going to write and run a restaurant at the same time. "He asked me in a way that suggested he could not allow the idea of my not writing into his head," Hammel remembers. "It was one of the bigger ... compliments he gave me."
Hammel remembers being at Wallace's home one day while he was going over the proofs of "Infinite Jest." Wallace was watching the Charles Grodin comedy "Beethoven." He told Hammel it was the only way he could bear to read the manuscript again.
Hammel has not forgotten Wallace's commitment to honesty and sincerity. "I think about him every day," he told me, adding: "David wanted you to tell a real story. And here I always remember I'm trying to satisfy an appetite."
D.T. Max is the author of "Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace." Max will appear at 6:30 p.m., Nov. 12, at City Lit Books.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun