The Pale King by David Foster Wallace '85 - An Excerpt



Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco- brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter- print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings fi red from the windbreak’s thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid and still as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.

Some crows come overhead then, three or four, not a murder, on the wing, silent with intent, corn- bound for the pasture’s wire beyond which one horse smells at the other’s behind, the lead horse’s tail obligingly lifted. Your shoes’ brand incised in the dew. An alfalfa breeze. Socks’ burrs. Dry scratching inside a culvert. Rusted wire and tilted posts more a symbol of restraint than a fence per se. no hunting. The shush of the interstate off past the windbreak. The pasture’s crows standing at angles, turning up patties to get at the worms underneath, the shapes of the worms incised in the overturned dung and baked by the sun all day until hardened, there to stay, tiny vacant lines in rows and inset curls that do not close because head never quite touches tail. Read these.


From Midway Claude Sylvanshine then flew on something called Consolidated Thrust Regional Lines down to Peoria, a terrifying thirty-seater whose pilot had pimples at the back of his neck and

reached back to pull a dingy fabric curtain over the cockpit and the beverage service consisted of a staggering girl underhanding you nuts while you chugged a Pepsi. Sylvanshine’s window seat was in

8-something, an emergency row, beside an older lady with a sacklike chin who could not seem despite strenuous efforts to open her nuts. The core accounting equation A = L + E can be dissolved and reshuffled into everything from E = A – L to beyond. The craft rode the updrafts and downdrafts like a dinghy in a gale. The only service into Peoria was regional out of either St. Louis or the two Chicagos. Sylvanshine had an inner ear thing and couldn’t read on planes but did read the emergency laminated card thing, twice. It was mostly illustrations; for legal reasons, the airline had to presume illiteracy. Without being aware that he was doing so, Sylvanshine mentally repeated the word illiterate several dozen times until the word ceased to mean anything and became just a rhythmic sound, not unlovely but out of sync with the propellors’ flux’s pulse. It was something he did when he was under stress and did not want an incursion. His point of departure was Dulles after a Service shuttle from Shepherdstown/Martinsburg. The three major codifications of US tax law being of course ’16, ’39, and ’54, with ’81 and ’82’s indexing and anti-abuse provisions also relevant. The fact that another major recodification was on the horizon would not, obviously, be on the CPA exam.

Sylvanshine’s private goal was to pass the CPA exam, thereby immediately advancing two pay grades. The extent of the recodification would, of course, depend in part on the Service’s success in carrying out the Initiative’s directives. The job and the exam had to occupy two separate parts of his mind; it was crucial that he maintain separation of powers. Separation of the two areas. Calculating depreciation recapture for §1231 assets is a five- step process. The flight took fifty minutes and seemed much longer. There was nothing to do and nothing would hold still in his head in all the confined noise and after the nuts were gone there was nothing else for Sylvanshine to do to occupy his mind but try to look at the ground which appeared close enough that he could make out house colors and the types of different vehicles on the pale interstate the plane seemed to tack back and forth across. The card’s figures opening emergency doors and pulling cords and crossing their arms funereally with their seat cushions on their chests seemed amateurishly drawn and their features little more than bumps; you couldn’t see fear or relief or really anything on their faces as they slid down the emergency chutes in the drawing. Emergency doors’ handles opened in one way and emergency hatches over the wings opened in a totally different way. Components of equity include common stock, retained earnings, and how many different types of SE transaction. Distinguish between perpetual and periodic inventory and explain the relation(s) between a physical inventory and the cost of goods sold. The darkly gray head ahead of him gave off a scent of Brylcreem that was even now surely soaking and staining the little paper towel on the seat top. Sylvanshine wished again that Reynolds was with him on the flight. Sylvanshine and Reynolds were both aides to Systems icon Merrill Errol (‘Mel’) Lehrl although Reynolds was a GS-11 and Sylvanshine only a miserable and pathetic GS-9. Sylvanshine and Reynolds had lived together and gone everywhere together since the Rome REC debacle in ’82. They weren’t homosexual; they just lived together and both worked closely with Dr. Lehrl at Systems. Reynolds had both his CPA and a degree in Information Systems Management although he was only slightly more than two years Claude  Sylvanshine’s senior. This asymmetry was just one more thing that compromised Sylvanshine’s self- regard since Rome and made him doubly loyal and grateful to Systems Director Lehrl for having salvaged him from the debris of the catastrophe in Rome and believing in his potential once his niche as a cog in the system was found. The double- entry method invented by Italian Pacioli during the same period as C. Columbus et alia. The card indicated that this was the type of aircraft whose emergency oxygen was a fire- extinguisherish thing beneath the seats rather than dropping from overhead. The primitive opacity of the figures’ faces was actually scarier than fear or some kind of visible expression would have been. It was unclear whether the card’s primary function was legal or PR or both. He briefly tried to remember the definition of yaw. Every so often while studying for the exam this winter Sylvanshine would burp and it would seem like more than a burp; it would taste like he’d almost thrown up a little. A light rain made a moving lace on the window and distended the crosshatched land they went over. At root, Sylvanshine saw himself as a dithering ninny with at most one marginal talent whose connection to him was itself marginal.

This is an excerpt from THE PALE KING by David Foster Wallace. Copyright © 2011 by David Foster Wallace Literary Trust. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown, New York, NY. All rights reserved.