The story of David Foster Wallace’s time spent in Boston, the city which would serve as his setting for the mighty, mighty “Infinite Jest” novel, has emerged slowly in drips and drabs. The disclosure of information commenced shortly after Wallace rose to fame in 1996, with the truth omitted or cleverly shrouded by Wallace at first, and significantly intensified after his suicide in 2008.
It seems like only now, in the last year or so, Wallace fans and amateur Commonwealth historians can start to get a clear picture of the who-what-where that made up the time when Wallace called Boston home. Filling in the details of his MA residency not only satiates the curiosities of DFW fanatics but should also serve as an invaluable literary back story—a more complete context for the greatest piece of fiction ever set inside Boston’s perimeter.
In a scene that would not be out of place inside the plot of “Infinite Jest,” earlier this week, two public radio employees (Kunal Jasty and Max Larkin—writers for Christopher Lydon’s “Radio Open Source” program) traveled down into the dusty basement archives of WBUR and located a tape which hasn’t been publicly available since it first aired in 1996 (and I should know, I have a keen interest in keeping tabs on DFW audio for this website). What’s especially interesting about this particular Wallace interview is how much time is devoted to talking about his time in Boston and how this influenced his characterization of the city in the novel. This is, easily, the most Boston-centric interview with Wallace on record and for that alone, it’s a fantastic discovery.
Lydon’s 1996 intro to the Wallace interview presents a standard set of “Jest”-superlatives (sprawling, dark, druggy, hilarious, clever, etc) to educate listeners who had yet to read the novel (which at the time, most had not), but goes on to call out the fact that “Jest” is “a Bostonian novel down to innumerable details of Commonwealth Avenue geography and local language, not just the accents of Boston, but, distinctive Boston words and phrases and meaning of terms.” It’s important to understand, this aspect of the book never received an enormous amount of coverage in the press upon its initial release, and additionally, there’s simply not a whole lot of Wallace commentary about the book’s connection to Boston out there, which in hindsight is understandable, since he was doing his very best to tap dance around the actual truth about “the research” he undertook for this remarkable novel (which we’ll get to momentarily).
From the recently rediscovered radio interview, here’s Wallace on Enfield, the fictional town he conjured between the borders of Brighton and Newton:
“I used to live in Brighton, so I know the area. I wanted to do something that was sort of about America, and Boston had certain obvious attractions for that. I was living in Boston at the time, but I also wanted to…I have a hard time doing anything that’s real because there’s so much real stuff that I get overwhelmed so I like to sort of mess with maps a little bit. Part of the book is about messing with maps, so I sort of reconfigured the Allston, Brighton, Newton area a little bit and stuck this town in that was, it was actually the name of a town close to where I went to college which was inundated for a reservoir.”
Lydon goes on, reading a passage from “Infinite Jest” that describes a myriad of drugs, contrasting their pharmacological and street names. This prompts an incredible back and forth which should be treasured as an exquisitely savvy dodge on Wallace’s part, leaving the truth in plain sight, while not owning up to anything specifically.
Lydon: “You know an awful lot about drugs. How does this happen?”
David Foster Wallace: “This book is researched pretty carefully. It’s kind of funny, now my friends in my hometown call me to check on the prescriptions they get from their doctors to find out about interactions.”
Lydon (clearly smelling that misdirect from a mile away): “Did you do a lot of drugs?”
David Foster Wallace: “I don’t know a whole lot of people under forty who haven’t had periods where they did a lot of drugs. And I’m under forty.”
Lydon: “And how about the alcohol side?”
David Foster Wallace: “You know, once again, I’ll tell you: the book’s real heavily researched. One of the reasons that it is set in Boston is that Boston AA is very strange and unique, it’s got a lot of open meetings which mean you don’t have to be a member to go, which means I could go and sit and take notes. You know, something I did for this book, is there’s 9 or 10 halfway house facilities licensed by divisions of substance abuse services who would more or less let you walk in and lurk. I’ve got a certain amount of experience with the stuff in the book, but it’s hardly an autobiographical book.”
This interview is the beginning of Wallace’s public recontextualization of his time spent in the halfway houses and AA meetings in Boston—a twisting of the truth that it was merely a technicality that allowed him complete access to these places (as far as I can tell, Boston’s ratio of open to closed AA meetings is not all that different from other cities, by the way). It wasn’t until D.T. Max’s 2012 biography “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story” that readers officially learned the grim run-down of the events that actually led the author into the recovery rooms that would inspire his masterpiece. It was during Wallace’s residency in Somerville, living with Mark Costello, that “he would get high or drunk most nights and, as he later told an interviewer, ‘fuck strangers.’” Costello remembers, “There was no shortage of chaos around 35 Houghton Street, apartment 2. Lost bills went unpaid. The phone rang at 3:00 A.M. And women banged on the back door two hours later.”
[Above: When David Foster Wallace lived in Somerville this is the house he lived in – Photo by Ryan Walsh]
Again, from the biography, a quote from a letter Wallace wrote to a friend, “The lovely medical staff at Harvard is putting me in an alcohol rehab and detox center on 11/2. Apparently I have liver problems. No joy in midville.” A stint in Belmont’s McLean Hospital followed, after which he chose to live in a halfway house in Brighton. The bio continues, “Wallace was not allowed out of the building on his own for the first ten days. For the next twenty he could go out only to substance abuse meetings.”
Back to the recently unearthed 1996 interview: “This sounds kind of embarrassing. I was raised in an academic environment, and in a pretty middle class one, and I had never really seen how other people live. My chance to see that was here in Boston. And a lot of it was in the halfway houses for this book.”
It’s fascinating to see Wallace admit the surface-level embarrassing truth (that Boston was his first exposure to real life) to hide the larger one (he was exposed to real life via his problem with drugs and alcohol), and who could blame him? Wallace wanted to be taken as a serious writer, and if he had casually copped to these biographical facts during press for the book, it likely would’ve been the only question he’d be asked for the rest of his life. Consider Lydon’s description of Wallace later in the same radio interview: “he looks like the ex-captain of the Boston University tennis team and he’s about to be the hottest writer in the universe.” Wallace wisely understood that he was either about to be taken very seriously as a writer, or turned into a drug-frenzied larger-than-life character by the media, and he chose to lie by omission to prevent the latter option from becoming a reality.
More Wallace commentary on Boston from the 1996 interview:
The whole interview is fantastic and worth listening to. Host Christopher Lydon followed it up with a present day episode concerned with Wallace’s Boston that is also fantastic and worth hearing.
Hopefully, continued attention to Wallace’s time spent here, in consideration of “Infinite Jest’s” seemingly increasingly secure spot in the literary canon, will trigger some kind of proper, official respect in the form of a plaque perhaps, although it’s admittedly funny to think of where that plaque might even go: the Somerville apartment where his life derailed? The halfway house in Brighton? Something is in order, as one cannot read “Infinite Jest” and ever look at the city of Boston in the same way ever again, and that’s a good thing.
In closing, here’s a short run down of other Wallace/Boston documents and resources.