by Kate Schmidt
Assigned a brief write-up of D.T. Max for our Printers Row festival coverage last spring, I e-mailed him via his website asking if he had any new projects in the works. A few days later I heard back from someone named Daniel, asking whether it was too late to provide info. Assuring him it wasn't, I asked to be directed to someone who could answer my question.
"i think that person is me! i have a couple of New Yorker pieces that I'm working on and contemplating something longer—mostly by doing the laundry and vacuuming. i also spend a lot of time talking about DFW at various universities—i completely love it!"
I apologized, explaining that I'd assumed I was corresponding with a lackey. "I am a lackey—lackey to myself," he wrote. Then, perhaps, he went back to vacuuming.
In reality Max is a staff writer for the New Yorker—his most recent piece was a well-timed profile of Jack Dorsey of Twitter, and he wrote the 2008 profile of Grant Achatz I'm sure many Chicagoans are familiar with. But as his reply to me indicated, for the last couple of years he's been making the rounds in connection with his biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, which is now out in paperback.
I can't see that title without thinking of what it's taken from, namely, a particularly spare, beautiful, heartbreaking chapter of The Pale King, the novel that Wallace was working on when he killed himself in 2008. It was this doomed endeavor that gave rise to Max's first piece on Wallace (still well worth reading), a 2009 New Yorker story focused on Wallace's efforts to surpass the towering Infinite Jest.
In the years since that book was published back in 1996, "DFW" has become something of a cult figure. There are websites devoted to him, like the obsessively completist the Howling Fantods; there are top ten lists; the Decemberists have covered him, so to speak; etc etc. (Idly googling around while rereading the novel earlier this year, I found that—shades of Harry Potter fans and Quidditch—people had actually played Eschaton.) Wallace's death was and is intensely felt by many readers, as well as by people who knew him.
Max wasn't one of the latter—he never met Wallace—and that may have helped him wade into these waters. He interviewed Wallace's widow and family in addition to scads of people who had known him, both for years and in passing, and it seems to me he honors them with the approach he takes in the book, which is never remotely sensationalistic or prurient about the things he turned up. If you're coming to it looking for dirt, well, sorry—you'll have to suffer through discussions of DFW's entire body of work, down to his short book on infinity.
Which is not at all to say that Every Love Story is dull. It's just serious, and rightfully so. It's also artful and plainspoken, from start ("Every story has a beginning and this is David Wallace's") to finish ("This was not an ending anyone would have wanted for him, but it was the one he had chosen").
Max's Printers Row appearance took the form of a Q&A with the Trib's Jennifer Day. At tonight's reading he'll be joined by another Tribune staffer, reporter Mark Caro, for another Q&A (good thing Max loves doing this!). Eschaton requires six tennis courts, so that's out, but I'd expect a wide-ranging discussion of interest to lots of people, not just the DFW fanboys and groupies (I am here biting back a snarky remark about Elizabeth Wurtzel).
It's at 6:30 PM at Logan Square's City Lit Books, right next to Lula Cafe (closed Tuesdays), which seems fitting. As my pen pal Daniel later informed me, chef-owner Jason Hammel was a student of DFW's.
D.T. Max, 6:30 PM, City Lit Books, 2523 N. Kedzie, 773-235-2523, citylitbooks.com