By Dale Peterson
There he was, slouched in the back row among all the reversed baseball caps, unshaven and garbed in meticulously drab colors, but with blazingly alert eyes. It was his junior year, he was reading my syllabus of long American novels (“American Realism, Naturalism and Modernism”), and he suddenly took fire when I said a few less-than-complimentary things about Frank Norris’ grotesquely deterministic study of a gross San Francisco dentist, McTeague. In response, David wrote a brilliant, spirited literary defense of Norris’ odd coupling of bizarre incident and semi-serious philosophizing in that comic and despairing, precociously absurdist novel. That was the start of everything that followed.
It was my good fortune to be assigned as David’s senior honors adviser in English, probably on the basis of the relationship we had developed but also, I imagine, because many colleagues were reluctant to take on a creative writing proposal that promised to be (and in the end, was) a massive first novel in two volumes, totaling some 400 double-spaced pages! It was, at the time, a minor miracle that the English department accepted a project of such girth; the standard expectation for an honors essay was—and still is—50 pages of well-polished prose, and undergraduate novels were decidedly frowned upon. But David’s academic reputation preceded him, and his ambition could not reasonably be thwarted. Soon I was on the receiving end of a prodigious outpouring of imaginative fiction, struggling to keep up with the weekly stream of inventive language and ingenious plotting that flowed from David’s positively Dickensian genius for spawning new characters and newly devised connections among them. Reading the young Wallace’s copious drafts was a thrilling, dizzying experience as he wrestled wild tangents into coherent shape. The end result, The Broom of the System, was not only a summa cum laude performance (and companion volume to his summa thesis in philosophy) but also David’s first, very characteristic work: a large, rambunctious, sinisterly comic novel about the proliferation of systems and information circuits that enmesh his characters and our lives.
David was encouraged by his philosophy and English professors to go straight on to graduate study in their own fields, but fortunately, he was more encouraged by his own prolific talent for creative writing. After graduation he shared that talent generously with later generations of Amherst students. As a visiting instructor in 1987, he was already his mature self: a soft-spoken, sweet-natured man who wrapped his head in a signature bandana and carried a sharp red pencil to ward off grammatical and stylistic offenses. His readings on campus, like so much else about David, were legendary. His talk on the occasion of his honorary degree was devoted to the rather arcane but fierce battle between prescriptive and descriptive grammarians. It is a perfect distillation of David’s laser-swift intellect, ever-alert irony, playful wit and compassionate sense of the comic and absurd.
It is, of course, the person himself that I most miss. The tragic end of David’s life removes forever an irreplaceable presence for me and my family, so I shall close with a household anecdote: With great trepidation, David agreed to house-sit with our pets, an aging, rotund cat and a feisty cockatiel. Always conscientious, he warned us that he was wary of cats, but would do his best to be companionable. When we returned to the house, David was quite enamored of the cat and heartily despised the bird. It seems the bird, Lolita, was a spitfire, hissing at him whenever he approached to feed her. Years later, when I received my paperback copy of The Broom of the System, the cover featured a garish caricature of our pet bird, now renamed Vlad the Impaler in the novel. David had his sweet revenge in a typically witty manner, though I knew, my family knew, that at heart, David was himself a pussycat. It is terribly sad that he was too gentle, too vulnerable to go gently toward that ultimate good night that awaits us all.
Peterson is the Eliza J. Clark Folger Professor of English and Russian. The essay was first published in The Amherst Student.