David Foster Wallace biography reveals multiple sides of the troubled yet brilliant author


In “Infinite Jest,” David Foster Wallace’s most acclaimed work, Ken Erdedy, a character who eventually winds up in rehab due to prolific pot binges, enters the novel anxiously waiting for his dealer. Ironically, the discipline Erdedy applies to arranging his binges nearly equals the discipline he’ll need to kick the habit.

The scene represents what may have been Wallace’s greatest gift — his ability to describe the inner workings of our minds. There’s a striking authenticity to Erdedy that those who have indulged will relate to — and will also make the reader curious about the writer himself.

In “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story,” D. T. Max presents an intricate companion guide to understanding Wallace’s life and works. As Max puts it, “David’s story had a purity even in its impurity.”

Following David’s life from his Midwestern roots up to his untimely death, his path appears more as a battle against himself, shifting from a youth with the “moral clarity of the immature,” as he wrote in his debut novel, “The Broom of the System,” to a writer who deeply cared about his readership, aching to teach them how to live life to the fullest.

“The thing that’s so alluring and seductive about David,” Max says, “is that he never loses interest in your life. What all his work sends is ‘take yourself seriously.’”

But that wasn’t always the case. Max’s portrayal of Wallace greatly differs at times from the identity that Wallace honed through his work and interviews. For instance, avid Wallace fans will be surprised to learn that his research into drug addiction and rehabilitation for “Infinite Jest” came firsthand, and how his relationships could produce a side of Wallace that was borderline psychotic.

However, Max says, “The dark side of David is so closely tied in with the bright side of him, I think, if we didn’t have that dark side … teaching us to take our lives seriously wouldn’t be possible.”

Wallace was also, at times, a fun, loving person who watched “Jurassic Park” dozens of times, drove a lemon hours on end to visit friends and let his dogs lick his mouth clean.

Max’s biography is part vigil, part celebration. Wallace was a writer who gave so much to a readership that loved him in return. When Max describes Wallace’s time as a professor, it’s hard to not yearn to have been one of his students.

“Every Love Story” also details Wallace’s works with a criticism that respects his authorial intent, illuminating them further.

Even though there’ll be no more works from Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008, “Every Love Story” offers a wonderful dose of his life and ideas, asking us, as Wallace did, “What’s it like to be human in a human community?”

“I don’t think he gave us the answer,” Max says, “but I think he gave us the gift of the question.”


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