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Strange Affinity: How David Foster Wallace Became Enamored With John McCain

Photo Source Steve Rhodes | CC BY 2.0

The recent passing of John McCain at age 81 resulted in the usual mass media panegyrics, but this time with an odd addition: references to David Foster Wallace and his 2000 essay for Rolling Stone about the late senator and the Straight Talk Express McCain had chartered for his unsuccessful presidential run.  Passages from Wallace’s essay were cited in numerous online tributes to McCain and were highlighted on CNN by Jake Tapper.

When Rolling Stone commissioned him to cover the 2000 McCain campaign Wallace was already an established cultural force.  In 1996 he published Infinite Jest, a massive tome hailed as the first true post-modern novel.  Prior to its publication Wallace had made a name for himself in academic circles for having produced—while still a student—a novel titled Broom of the System and a collection of short stores called The Girl With Curious Hair.

In 1990 Wallace penned an essay called “E Unibus Pluram” about the effect of television on fiction writing.  In it he analyzed the growing influence of irony, cautioning fiction writers that as a literary device irony has always been a dead end.  Television in the late eighties/early nineties with its Joe Isuzu and David Letterman and countless other purveyors of smirking winking in-jokes had become a self-referencing irony machine that the likes of DeLillo and Pynchon could never compete with.  Besides, Wallace asserted, irony is nothing but a cheap suit.

In the early 90s examples of said cheap suit had become ubiquitous—not only on television but also in the movies.  After Pulp Fiction hit the screen in 1994 no one was safe from the ensuing tsunami of undiluted irony: Six Heads in a Duffle Bag, Three Days in the Valley, Things to do in Denver When You’re Dead (to name but a few) populated multiplexes for the next several seasons.

Wallace’s 1,079 page effort, Infinite Jest, was in no small way a response and a reaction to this trend, which by the mid-nineties was truly getting old.  When his enormous novel with its defiantly anti-ironic recovery story finally hit the bookstores in 1996, its splashy and heavily hyped arrival spread ripples of relief. “The thing is it has to be the truth to really go over here,” says the voice of the novel’s protagonist, Don Gately.  “It can’t be a calculated crowd-pleaser, and it has to be the truth unslanted, unfortified. And maximally unironic.  An ironist in a Boston AA meeting is a witch in church.”

Harper’s had previously employed Wallace as a reporter-at-large, assigning him to cover the Illinois State Fair and booking passage for him aboard a cruise ship orbiting the Caribbean, adventures collected in a book titled A Supposedly Fun Thing That I’ll Never Do Again. In 2000 Rolling Stone, a one-time underground publication that since its inception in the Sixties as a radical voice on the fringe had over the decades evolved into a glossy right-wing corporate mouthpiece, hired Wallace to cover the campaign of his choosing. Wallace opted for McCain’s.

“The campaign’s logistics are dizzyingly complex,” Wallace tells us in his breathless report, “and one of the things the McCain 2000 staff has to do is rent different buses and decorate the nicest one with STRAIGHT TALK EXPRESS and McCAIN2000.COM in each new state.”

A true neophyte, Wallace was placed aboard the lead press bus.  He dubbed it Bullshit 1 and called the dozen or so principal political correspondents covering the campaign the Twelve Monkeys.  Professional journalists he called pencils, as in “Rolling Stone sent the least professional pencil it could find [Wallace] to spend the standard media Week on the Bus . . .”

Wallace devotes most of his word count to the techies and roadies that made the campaign function so that the reader soon feels the same stale fatigue and mind-numbing passage of miles endured by the press corps, but damned little about the candidate himself:

“The schedule is fascist: wake-up call and backup alarm at 0600h, express check-out, Baggage Call at 0700 to throw bags and techs’ gear under the bus, haul ass to McCain’s first THM at 0800, then another, then another, maybe an hour off to F&F someplace if ODTs permit, then usually two big evening events, plus hours of dead highway DT between functions, finally getting into that night’s Marriott or Hampton Inn at like 2300 just when room service closes so that you’re begging rides from FoxNews to find a restaurant still open, then an hour at the hotel bar to try to shut your head off so you can hit the rack at 0130 and get up at 0600 and do it all again. Usually it’s four to six days for the average pencil and then you go off home on a gurney and your editor rotates in fresh meat.”

Wallace’s prose style isn’t so much derivative as cumulative. His frequent use of initial caps and all caps was pioneered by Tom Wolfe, who also leaned heavily on acronyms, while his first person narrative attempts at reportage reflect New Journalism offerings made popular by Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer in the Sixties (and first realized by William Hazlitt in the early 19th Century with his essay, “The Fight”).  Similarly, Wallace’s novels are clearly patterned after Pynchon.

Wallace was quite taken with the candidate.  “One reason a lot of the media on the Trail like John McCain,” he tells us, “is simply that he’s a cool guy. Nondweeby. In school, Clinton was in student government and band, whereas McCain was a varsity jock and a hell-raiser whose talents for partying and getting laid are still spoken of with awe by former classmates, a guy who graduated near the bottom of his class at Annapolis and got in trouble for flying jets too low and cutting power lines and crashing all the time and generally being cool.”  (When the Germans attacked Pearl Harbor . . .)

He was enamored of the candidate’s martial valor:

“You probably already know what happened. In October of ’67 McCain was himself still a Young Voter and flying his 23rd Vietnam combat mission and his A-4 Skyhawk plane got shot down over Hanoi and he had to eject, which basically means setting off an explosive charge that blows your seat out of the plane, which ejection broke both McCain’s arms and one leg and gave him a concussion and he started falling out of the skies right over Hanoi.”

It never occurred to Wallace that McCain was shot down while in the commission of a war crime—bombing a civilian light bulb factory in the Hanoi suburbs during a war that had never been officially declared.

McCain’s wartime experience was remembered differently by Jeffrey St. Clair and Alexander Cockburn in an article of theirs from May 1999:

“McCain is often called a ‘war hero’, a title adorning an unlovely resume starting with a father who was an admiral and graduation fifth from the bottom at the US Naval Academy, where he earned the nickname “McNasty”. McCain flew 23 bombing missions over North Vietnam, each averaging about half an hour, total time ten hours and thirty minutes. For these brief excursions the admiral’s son was awarded two Silver Stars, two Legions of Merit, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Bronze Stars, the Vietnamese Legion of Honor and three Purple Hearts. US Veteran Dispatch calculates our hero earned a medal an hour, which is pretty good going. McCain was shot down over Hanoi on October 26, 1967 and parachuted into Truc Boch Lake, whence he was hauled by Vietnamese, and put in prison.”

Wallace was totally sold on the man: “But the point is that with McCain it feels like we know, for a proven fact, that he’s capable of devotion to something other, more, than his own self-interest. So that when he says the line in speeches in early February you can feel like maybe it isn’t just more candidate bullshit, that with this guy it’s maybe the truth.”

In his biography of Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost StoryD.T. Max tells us: “In truth politics did not generally matter much to him [Wallace].  He did not think who won an election could change what was broken.”

Wallace was not unaware of McCain’s politics:

“McCain just got done giving a Major Policy Address on crime and punishment at the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy in Columbia, which is where the caravan is heading back to Charleston from. It was a resoundingly scary speech, delivered in a large airless cinderblock auditorium surrounded by razor wire and guard towers (the SCCJA adjoined a penal institution so closely that it wasn’t clear where one left off and the other began) and introduced by some kind of very high-ranking Highway Patrol officer whose big hanging gut and face the color of rare steak seemed right out of southern-law-enforcement central casting and who spoke approvingly and at some length about Senator McCain’s military background and his 100 percent conservative voting record on crime, punishment, firearms, and the war on drugs.”

Here Wallace seemed to be telling his imagined reader, the Young Voter, that McCain was a real shit when it came to actual policy, but still . . .

That Wallace’s regrettable report should surface again with McCain’s passing seems oddly appropriate.  Wallace’s work has been reevaluated since his untimely death.  Infinite Jest on reflection no longer seems the world-changing post-modern novel it was once considered, but instead looks more like a half-way decent crime story trapped beneath layer upon layer of useless crap.

The meat of Infinite Jest is found in the confessionals of AA participants.  A question hangs over the novel as to whether Wallace violated the sanctity of AA meetings by using actual confessionals when composing it.  Wallace had similar difficulties when The Girl With Curious Hair first came out.  One of his stories concerned a woman starring in a television show who is scheduled to appear on the Letterman show.  His story, “My Appearance,” closely follows the actual appearance of Susan St. James on Letterman—so closely that the publisher’s legal staff expressed concern over copyright issues.  Likewise, Wallace’s magnum opus and principal claim to fame—Infinite Jest—could well be founded on the morally questionable use of privileged source material.

We’ve just put McCain to rest.  Perhaps we can accord Wallace the same measure of regard.

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Chris Welzenbach is a playwright (“Downsize”) who for many years was a member of Walkabout Theater in Chicago. He can be reached at incoming@chriswelzenbach.com

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