Footsteps: David Foster Wallace’s Peaceful Prairie
My mother had urged me back to the state’s glacier-flattened center, where I grew up, at this time of year. There would be no corn or soybeans yet to ripple endlessly like an ocean, but she appreciated March’s stark earth and sky. I lived out East now, and it had been months since I could watch a sunset’s full reach from horizon to horizon. I remembered what Wallace, a central Illinois native, had told family after he left for Amherst College in Massachusetts. The Berkshires were pretty, he wrote, but not beautiful “the way Illinois is.”
Finding beauty and nuance in a landscape others might dismiss as nothingness was part of what has made Wallace, who took his own life, a postmodern American classic. Like the actor John Malkovich, who also grew up quirky in downstate Illinois, he represents both high and pop culture.
The New Yorker writer D. T. Max published Wallace’s biography not long after his death. “The End of the Tour,” a film about how he lived anonymously in Illinois even as his national fame grew, was a critical darling in 2015. His 1,100-page masterwork, “Infinite Jest,” was released in a 20th-anniversary edition this year. His writing is still referenced everywhere from a “Simpsons” episode to a Decemberists video.
Yet even many fans don’t realize where David Foster Wallace was from. At one point he was listed among New York City’s most eligible bachelors. He never lived there. Wallace was raised in central Illinois and returned to it for the most stable, productive period of his life. Its college towns sustained him — he grew up in Champaign-Urbana, where his father was a philosophy professor at the University of Illinois, and later spent a decade in nearby Bloomington-Normal, where he taught writing at Illinois State University.
The meditative spaces and down-to-earth people of the Midwest were central to Wallace’s writing, as he pushed back the ironic for the heartfelt. And he didn’t produce brilliant work in spite of the more conventional folks surrounding him in Illinois; as his essays and books like “The Pale King” reveal, he was inspired by the Midwest’s sincerity to go beyond America’s cultural snark for truth about its contemporary life, which he found rushed, overstimulated and lonely. At home in Illinois, this tormented genius, wild maximalist and yet somehow earnest moralist of a writer said he felt “unalone and unstressed.”
One morning after the traffic-stopping sunset, I set out for Champaign-Urbana. The college town of 120,000 is where farm kids like my father would try pizza and tacos for the first time. Dad studied at the U. of I. in the ’70s, when Wallace was growing up in Urbana, and for six years during Wallace’s adolescence, drinking beer was legal at age 18. Dad remembers the city as chaotic then — marijuana wafting, teenagers vomiting, trash piling up.
For Wallace, life was unstructured. I stopped at placid Blair Park, where he and a high school teammate, John Flygare, taught tennis for five summers. They’d collect cash for the lessons, order pizza out of the proceeds, then turn over whatever was left in the cash box to the Urbana Park District every couple of weeks, Mr. Flygare told me. No one monitored. “I see my kids almost assuming their lives are going to stay structured,” he said. “When we were among ourselves, we were just free.” There were no children in the park that morning, a school day. Soccer nets were up now, signs of an organized sport new to Illinois. An older man walked his dogs alone.
Two miles away I walked into the Illini Union, one of the U. of I.’s acres of neo-Classical buildings, positively Roman in their scale. Upstairs was all elegant blond wood, but downstairs reeked of a cheap rec-room, with pizza, doughnuts and tater tots competing for airspace. Aping college students, Wallace and his friends often played pool on one of the many tables, now orange-felted, Mr. Flygare said. The teenagers were always in a pack; not so today. A student whose blue hair was gelled up like a unicorn horn fired up an “In the Groove” dance game solo.
Other times the Urbana tennis teammates smoked or drank in hotels or on the road when they drove to tournaments around Illinois, which they entered at will, coach-free. The freedom fostered Mr. Flygare’s autonomy, he told me. Other teammates, he said, found the downside of the wide-openness; one developed a spiraling drug problem.
Wallace, too, later fought depression and addiction. He entered treatment in Boston, according to the Max biography, and joined a 12-step program back in Illinois. He drew on those experiences in “Infinite Jest,” whose high-I.Q. characters struggle with their need for a program and its platitudes. “ ‘Getting in Touch With Your Feelings’ is another quilted-sampler-type cliché that ends up masking something ghastly deep and real, it turns out,” Wallace wrote of an alter-ego character, Don Gately, who relives traumas in recovery. “It starts to turn out that the vapider the A.A. cliché, the sharper the canines of the real truth it covers.”
From Champaign I drove northwest to Normal, where I would spend days following the David Foster Wallace “Places of Significance” map of haunts from his teaching days that the Bloomington-Normal Area Convention and Visitors Bureau helpfully supplies. The distance between the cities was 50 miles, which on this square-mile road grid took exactly 50 minutes.
The two-lane highway was accompanied by train tracks — Bloomington was founded as a wealthy depot town in one of the world’s most fertile counties. En route I passed towns like Farmer City, where grain elevators stood above the fields like naval-ship superstructures on the ocean. I listened to the reassuring all-viewpoints-appreciated intoning of Tom Ashbrook, a 4-H kid who grew up outside Normal, on National Public Radio’s “On Point.” Knowing Wallace and his friends preferred psychedelic rock, I flipped to a ’70s station, and Pink Floyd’s “Brain Damage” thrummed in.
Signs with lightning bolts and thunderclouds in one town along the way, Mahomet, proclaimed it a “StormReady Community.” This was the start of tornado season in Illinois. Wallace described that time in “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” an essay about his tennis years and the downstate wind; he claimed he read the gusts like a weather vane to lift his game against the city kids. He trash-talked Chicago, saying that as “one giant windbreak,” the city “does not know but from a true religious-type wind” that could inspire an unholy fear.
With nothing tall between central Illinois and the Rockies, he wrote, the winds “move east like streams into rivers and jets and military fronts that gather like avalanches and roar in reverse down pioneer ox trails toward our own personal unsheltered asses.”
That night a local TV report noting “westerlies,” “supercells” and “wind gusts at 60 miles an hour“ broke into prime time. “A tornado warning remains in effect for Fulton County, the Fairview and Farmington areas,” the weathercaster announced. “It’s gonna be interesting to see how this holds together.” Eventually the storms died down.
Despite the occasional edge of danger, Illinois was where Wallace took shelter. New York hissed with egos inflating and deflating, he told the Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky. After his successful first novel, and an unhappy stint earning an M.F.A. at the University of Arizona, he returned home in 1993 to try what he called “academia at its nicest” at Illinois State. “When I’m here,” Wallace said, “it’s just more like, ‘Huh, what an interesting storm, going on outside my window. I’m sure glad I’m inside.’ ”
Illinois State provided stability. I started at blocky, solid Stevenson Hall, where Wallace’s colleague Robert McLaughlin showed me the writer’s office, 420C, now a medieval language center. “I still think we should put up a plaque,” he said, as a professor walking by chuckled. “See, they laugh at me. Although it’s true David would have hated that.”
From the campus I strolled the few blocks to uptown Normal, where Wallace often hung out with his students and his various girlfriends. Grimy in the ’90s, with comic-book stores and sandwich shops, uptown now felt fresh-scrubbed, with boutiques, murals, wine bars and a new Marriott where the university’s David Foster Wallace Conference now draws scholars from around the world each spring. Behind the all-brick buildings, a train sounded its lonesomeness, and Union Pacific freight cars chugged west.
I looked for the new location of Babbitt’s Books, which Wallace once told Condé Nast Traveler was his favorite bookstore. A former Illinois State art major, Brian K. Simpson, long owned the store until he moved it down the street and sold to a millennial owner in 2015.
Peeking inside with me, Mr. Simpson said that the place looked better-swept than during his day, when it was piled with books, and when writers like Wallace gave readings upstairs in a clammy old apartment where a worn couch sat among the hodgepodge of folding and kitchen chairs. “Infinite Jest” was now in the window, but the place does only modest Wallace business locally, the new owner said. He sold his first copy of “The Pale King” to me.
Across Beaufort Street was another Wallace favorite, the Coffeehouse & Deli, a lovable establishment whose beige walls dated back decades, and some of whose crumbs might have, too. “This place is from, like, 1985,” a clerk said as the credit-card machine balked. Charles Harris, the retired English Department chairman who had hired Wallace, and his wife, Victoria Harris, a former colleague and friend of the writer’s, met me there. “The way he depicted Gately was the way he was in person,” she told me. “He listened so astutely. Nothing was overlooked when you spoke.”
Mr. Harris took me past Wallace’s place, a plain ranch house on a modest lawn along Bloomington’s rural Woodrig Road. Wallace lived there alone, then with a girlfriend, Juliana Harms, then alone again. A horse was pastured beyond the windbreak, a line of spindly willows alongside his yard. It had the edge-of-town positioning locals call “tornado bait.”
Wallace finished “Infinite Jest” in a room there he later painted black. “Some of the greatest literature of the past 50, 60 years was written in that house,” Mr. Harris said, and we gaped. Curtains drawn, the place had a vacant air, its scraggly bushes overgrown to the size of dairy cows.
Even after Wallace left, recruited to Pomona College, outside of Los Angeles, in 2002, he still drew on Illinois. He set “The Pale King” in Peoria, the figurative perfect middle of the country since vaudeville days. The book opens with a wry, Whitmanesque description of the landscape: “Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time.” In the novel he used I.R.S. auditing as a metaphor for the meditativeness of valuable work, the prairie as a metaphor for meditativeness.
Serially tormented by relationships and writing, Wallace found a different peace out West, but it proved fragile. In 2004 Wallace married Karen Green, an artist he met in California, back in Urbana, among family, and they returned to Claremont to live. Storms were still on his mind. In one letter he called the writing process “a tornado that won’t hold still long enough for me to see what’s useful and what isn’t.” He tried switching antidepressants, with shattering results. Within months he was dead.
Before Wallace left Illinois, a Bloomington-Normal newspaper columnist, Bill Flick, had poked at his local anonymity by writing about his national fame. I had lunch with Mr. Flick at Monical’s Pizza, a Midwestern chain with around 60 locations. This one, near State Farm Insurance’s headquarters east of downtown Bloomington, had been a Wallace favorite. The pizza was as flat as the land (the secret was tilling the crust with some sort of puncturer, a cook said), and the toppings went to the edge.
His interview with Wallace, in the Denny’s next door, had been uncomfortable, Mr. Flick remembered. “David was quiet and guarded,” he said. “Maybe because I was invading his little space, his own private Idaho in the calming middle of Illinois. That probably scared him.”
On our way out I asked the waitress, in her 20s, if she knew of David Foster Wallace. She winced apologetically — she didn’t know the name. I stepped out into a promising March afternoon, the wind strong as ever, the sun high. Even in death, central Illinois leaves Wallace in his anonymity, and a deep peace.
If You Go
What to See
Visitors revel in the kitschy memorabilia of the Route 66 Association of Illinois Hall of Fame and Museum, on a portion of the Mother Road between Chicago and Bloomington-Normal (110 West Howard Street, Pontiac; 815-844-4566.
Uptown Normal, the once-grungy business district abutting Illinois State University, is now a likable mix of shops selling accessories, kitchen tools, sportswear, hardware and plenty of coffee (11 Uptown Circle, Normal; 309-454-9557; uptownnormal.com).
Where to Eat
Monical’s Pizza was a David Foster Wallace favorite (718 South Eldorado Avenue, Bloomington; 309-662-8502; 2720 South Philo Road, Urbana; 217-367-5781; monicals.com).
Although his tastes ran more toward burgers and Denny’s, when Wallace chose fine dining, he might turn up at classic, dignified Silvercreek (402 North Race Street, Urbana; 217-328-3402; couriersilvercreek.com).
Arguably the best independent restaurant in Bloomington-Normal is Medici, where menu offerings include beer-can chicken and lobster primavera. (120 North Street, Normal; 309-452-6334; medicinormal.com).
Where to Stay
Wallace scholars from around the globe stay annually at the Bloomington-Normal Marriott Hotel & Conference Center, in uptown Normal. (201 Broadway Avenue; 309-862-9000; marriott.com/hotels/travel/bmimc)
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