When Kevin e-mailed me Sunday night with the news that David Foster Wallace had committed suicide, it sucked the wind right out of me.
I was sort of a lapsed English major in 1996, so I did not discover Wallace through his sprawling, brilliant mess of a novel, "Infinite Jest". Instead, I happened across an essay he'd written about tennis for Esquire called "The String Theory."
It ostensibly followed American pro Michael Joyce through a few weeks on the hardcourt circuit in the summer of 1995. But it was really a contemplation of the differences in mentality and skill between a solid pro, Joyce, and a once-decent amateur, Wallace. I've never read a better piece about what distinguishes professional athletes from the rest of us. But this essay was also a memoir of childhood, an exploration of tennis' physics and a funny, biting snapshot of the pro tour with priceless asides about Pete Sampras' body hair and the combination of physical genius and silliness that defined mid-career Andre Agassi.
It was just wonderful.
I didn't run across Wallace again for several years. In 2000, he spent a few weeks on the presidential campaign trail with an insurgent Republican, one John McCain. I happened to cover my first two political races that year, one a heated battle for the town council in tiny Salem, Va., and the other a high-profile U.S. senate showdown between conservative comer George Allen and Lyndon Johnson's son-in-law, Chuck Robb. When I picked up Wallace's piece for Rolling Stone, I recognized a writer who cut right to the core of all I'd seen on the trail. The weird combination of high stakes and endless drudgery, the absurd public spectacles, the tactical complexity. He'd nailed it. I'll never forget the passages in which he discovered that veteran camera techs were far savvier than the stuffed suits covering the race for the big papers.
The piece made me laugh out loud but also made me think about the state of American politics and the meaning of McCain's POW experience. It offered an eerie preview of the political tacticians behind George W. Bush. I think McCain should read it any time he needs to be reminded why people rallied to his banner in the first place.
For some reason, I failed to realize that the same guy had written the tennis piece and the McCain story. You'd think his distinctive footnotes would have clued me in. Anyway, when the light bulb went off, I had a new hero and chased down everything Wallace had ever written. I continued to do so, even though he published infrequently.
When he did write, it felt as if the heavens had opened. I'm pretty sure his 2006 musing on the greatness of Roger Federer, published in The New York Times Magazine, was the best thing written on sports this decade. He just had a way of laying bare the workings of his fabulous mind. From the keen observations to the diverting trivia to the footnotes (digressions that often turned into wonderful mini-essays),his writing simulated how a person actually thinks.
Writers check each other out. If you care about the work, you invariably become envious or just infuriated when another writer's success far exceeds his or her talent. Others make you want to do what they do. And then there are those special few who make you think, "Crap, I could never do that, but I don't care. I just want to read more."