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The genius of David Foster Wallace and the ugly monster of depression

Tennessee Titans quarterback Vince Young, according to various reports this week, mentioned suicide when speaking to a therapist about his recent difficulties, an admission that caused a considerable and disappointing amount of armchair psychiatry in the media. No shortage of pundits and ex-players could hardly resist telling the world it was time for Young to "suck it up" and "man up" to get over his self-confidence issues. The entire episode made me incredibly sad. Because it reflected how ignorant and macho so many of us are about mental health in this country, and it just happened to occur the same week the world of literature lost one of its smartest and most creative minds to the ugly beast that is depression.

Vince Young and David Foster Wallace had so very little in common at first glance, but Wallace -- best known as the author of the novel "Infinite Jest" or the non-fiction collections, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" and "Consider the Lobster" -- was to many people in my business as dynamic and inventive with words as Young was with a football in his hands during his career at the University of Texas. Wallace, who also wrote regularly for Rolling Stone, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, and was a creative writing teacher at Pomona College, apparently took his own life on Friday, succumbing to a 20-year battle with depression. It felt, in every sense, like a punch in the stomach when I heard the news.

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Good sports writers, at least the ones I've always admired, always consider themselves as writers first, and sports fans second. Sports is simply the backdrop, or the great stage, for the drama of the human existence. Wallace wrote occasionally about sports -- tennis mostly; he was an accomplished junior player as a teenager and loved the game's marriage of angles and artistry -- but he was not writing about tennis as much as he was writing about life, which is something I've always tried to remember in my own work. Wallace's strength was that he could write, quite literally, about everything well. He once agreed to cover the Maine Lobster Festival for Gourmet Magazine. He turned in a 6,000-word essay that was, in part, a "physiological and philosophical meditation on the bioethics of lobster boiling." His footnotes, which became a trademark in his fiction and his journalism, were just as often hilarious as they were heartbreaking.

Depression, and the dark places that the human mind can go sometimes, are not something one can simply "man up" and get over any more than they can "suck it up" and get over cancer. That's hard for most people to understand, and even harder for those in sports, simply because so much of sports is about masculinity and the idea that every competition serves, in some way, as a psychological, macho substitute for war or battle. Wallace wrote about this subject in his brilliant essay about how watching Roger Federer play tennis was, for him, akin to having a religious experience.

Wallace wrote:

Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.

The human beauty we're talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings' reconciliation with the fact of having a body.

Of course, in men's sports no one ever talks about beauty or grace or the body. Men may profess their "love" of sports, but that love must always be cast and enacted in the symbology of war: elimination vs. advance, hierarchy of rank and standing, obsessive statistics, technical analysis, tribal and/or nationalist fervor, uniforms, mass noise, banners, chest-thumping, face-painting, etc. For reasons that are not well understood, war's codes are safer for most of us than love's.

I'm not afraid to say that I loved Wallace writing. (Eight years ago, on a flight from Montana to Baltimore to interview for the job I still hold with The Sun, "Infinite Jest" was the only book I brought with me.) I am not alone. Writers and authors of various talents and ambitions are mourning today. He tried countless times over the years to find a way to cope with the dark thoughts inside his head. I hope Vince Young can find some the answers Wallace could not.

My friend and colleague Childs Walker, one of the biggest Wallace fans I know, summed up the Wallace's influence on his own writing in an e-mail:

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."

Wallace was one of those.

Such artists leave me in awe of what humans can do. When the world seems too random, brutal or dull, I turn to them and find hope.

I woke this morning feeling that this existence seemed a little dimmer.

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--Childs Walker

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Photo: LA TIMES

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