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John Seery

John Seery

Posted: September 13, 2008 11:55 PM

David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008

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David Foster Wallace has passed away. He hanged himself. The world has lost a spectacular writer. Already it seems as if some special portal of human intelligence has been closed off.

He was a colleague and friend. I have no mind to try to pay adequate tribute to him here. Those should soar and will come later. Nor can I speak to the circumstances of his death. What I want to note instead, just briefly, are a few personal recollections. I'd like the world to know, from my modest vantage, that he was a nice guy in person, and also as brilliant in conversation as one might expect from his dazzling prose. Frankly I had a hard time keeping up with him--I thought he was always two or three chess moves ahead of me. But as the keen observer of the human condition that he was, he seemed to take into account his interlocutor's shortcomings and made gentle accommodations for them, without being patronizing. So we talked.

For several years we had become workout partners of sorts at a local gym. I didn't dare divulge that fact to anyone in the vicinity. He called himself agoraphobic. I didn't want a bunch of people descending upon the gym. It was thus I had the privilege of getting to know him in a quiet space, while stretching and doing sit-ups, and talking and talking between sets. We hit it off, perhaps because he and I shared a few commonalities in our past and present lives: We both hailed from the Midwest, Illinois and Iowa; we both had studied philosophy at Amherst College; we both ended up teaching at Pomona College. I harbor no illusions that the similarities don't end right there. He was absolutely brilliant, a true talent, an original, a devilish and maybe tormented but also kind-hearted genius.

One time I told him that a student had come into my office that day and informed me that some of my work on irony had become standard research material for the high school and college debating circuit and that the local debaters were especially excited that David Foster Wallace had joined the Pomona College faculty because his work constituted the anti-irony position--and now the local team, getting an edge on the competition, could claim direct access to the authors of both the irony folder and the anti-irony folder. To which Dave quipped, "You mean like matter and anti-matter?" At that moment, I kid you not, I swear on whatever book you'd have me swear on, that Alanis Morissette's "Ironic" came on as the background music in the gym. We just glanced at each other and didn't acknowledge it. I had the definite sense, though, that I had just experienced right then and there a creepy-funny David Foster Wallacesque moment, something weird you'd read about in one of his essays--yet there he was in person, in the flesh, while it happened.

Another time he and I drove together to the gym owner's house for a special lunch. The place was packed with body builders with massive biceps, and we were the only two skinny-ass egghead types present. He turned to me and said, "I'm really glad you're here with me because I'm afraid these guys might force me to do their algebra homework." That joke was self-deprecating, not mean-spirited, just an acknowledgment of the plain fact that we were clearly overmatched.

He and I had an ongoing resolution to each other, going back several years now, to go watch tarantulas scurry across the Claremont fire trails in the late fall week when they make their mad dashes out into the open. When I first mentioned that phenomenon to him, he gave me an impromptu lecture on the different characteristics of various arachnids, especially the dangers experienced by the frenzied male tarantula on the make. He really wanted to go. Somehow we never made it. When such a strange opportunity presents itself, when a David Foster Wallace wants to go tarantula watching with you, you probably shouldn't let that one slip away.

He hadn't been coming into the gym for some time. I had a lot queued up to tell him. I wrote him a note inquiring into his whereabouts. He wrote back and said my note cheered him. My head swirls right now. He expanded our senses of infinity and oblivion and more, much more. My sincere condolences go out to his wife and family.