The Writer And The Man

Reviews of D.T. Max's David Foster Wallace biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, are starting to appear. Scott Esposito describes it as "a book without much human or philosophical insight," but not entirely unuseful:

On the positive side, Max is clearly a diligent and able researcher. He’s dug up all sorts of interesting facts about Wallace and seems to even be familiar with his correspondence (at least with luminaries like Jonathan Franzen and Don DeLillo). There are lots of little gems in here, and I think this would constitute the main appeal for this book to Wallace fans and academics. The depth to which Wallace himself was an addict surprised me, as well as the extent to which fame really did seduce and then mangle him as a young writer who had an enormous amount of early success. These findings do put books like Infinite Jest into a new light.

At Publisher's Weekly, Gabe Habash finds the book limited for similar reasons. In a particularly thoughtful review, Craig Fehrman focuses on Wallace's relationship to the Midwest:

Wallace went to a big public high school and interacted with students from all sorts of backgrounds in a way the son of two professors in a larger city might not have. And at Amherst, at Arizona, and on his return to Illinois, he deliberately re-created this mix. One of his neighbors in Bloomington-Normal worked at a lumberyard; another repaired Xerox machines. Wallace even engaged with the midwest Franzen ignores—especially through his recovery group, which drew most of its members from the working class. "You're special," he wrote to another author in 1999, six years after settling in Bloomington-Normal. "But so's the guy across the table who's raising two kids sober and rebuilding a '73 Mustang. It's a magical thing with 4,000,000,000 forms. It kind of takes your breath away."

Of course, the midwest isn't the only place one can learn these things. But it's where Wallace learned them. Max realizes this on some level, and in his book he offers a few pieties about how Wallace grew up surrounded by "midwestern virtues of normality, kindness, and community." Yet it's not clear that a single one of those virtues took: Wallace was mostly a loner, he was certainly a creep (his relationships with women make Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, his second collection of short stories, seem almost autobiographical), and nothing about him seemed normal. The midwest influenced him on a more abstract level, in his philosophical and artistic orientation toward the larger world. Max might have explored these ideas. Instead, he chooses to alternate between dismissing and sentimentalizing the midwest—two gestures that, in the end, amount to the same thing.

Michiko Kakutani's dutiful, rather boring NYT review is here. Recent Dish DFW coverage here, here, and here. An excerpt from the biography appeared on The Daily Beast here.