John Moe: I Did Not Read Infinite Jest This Summer

09.11.09 | 70 Comments

John Moe is a writer and public radio host now living in St Paul, Minnesota. He is the author of the book Conservatize Me and his short humor pieces appear in several anthologies as well as on McSweeneys.net.

I’m still upset at the author for being a thief. Ever been robbed? Like had your house burglarized and your stuff rummaged through and stolen? There’s this period right after it happens when you can’t believe that someone got into where you live, the space where you sleep and bathe and eat, and just took stuff you had bought and taken care of. David Foster Wallace hanged himself and robbed us of all the work he would have produced in the future. Our homes were stocked floor to ceiling with the promise of the best goddamn writing people could make and Wallace fucking ripped it off. I’m still walking around wanting to punch someone. Don’t bother calling the goddamn cops, they won’t do anything.

Or, okay, different analogy. We’re an urban metropolis that’s collapsing under the weight of corruption and moral degradation, gangs are everywhere and no one collects the garbage. Dystopia, right? But! We do have this one super hero who occasionally rescues us and occasionally he can’t quite rescue us but even then he provides us with the idea of hope, the idea of salvation and redemption being possible from our little hell. Only now David Foster Wallace has hanged himself and so our superhero has just announced that screw this city, I’m moving to Australia and you’ll never see me again and so we’re just left with rot and sorrow and no one will even collect the garbage and the cops are shooting people for no reason and everything’s on fire. Wallace left us. I hate that guy. And I love that guy, of course, but you know that by now. Fucking guy. Fucking Wallace. I should explain. On April 4, 2007, I got a phone call at work from my wife. She said my brother Rick had shot himself in San Diego where he was living. I was sucked up out of my chair (never to return fully to Earth) and calmly asked if he was dead. She didn’t know. Within a few hours, I was on a flight from Seattle to San Diego and drove straight to the hospital where Rick was. His brain was already gone, his body soon followed. The next several days were spent performing small tasks that all weighed a ton: collecting his personal effects at the hospital, figuring out what was to be done with the apartment he shared, all his books. I had to get a ride to the gun range where he had shot himself, talk to the manager who had been on duty about what happened, he told me about the employees who were on duty that day who still hadn’t come back to work. I had to drive my brother’s car from there back to the hotel where I was staying, leave it in the parking lot, and figure out what the hell was to happen next. Some tasks weren’t so straight forward, like getting to know the ex-girlfriend who would, in three months, give birth to a daughter Rick would never hold.

After a few days, I returned home to Seattle and all I was left with was, essentially, research material. Accounts of friends and co-workers. I also had my memories of him. The early ones were all viewed through a lens of him being The Greatest Guy Ever because he was my older brother and that’s how it works. The later memories are more painful: Rick being high at family gatherings, Rick asking for money, me not allowing Rick to meet my kids because I simply didn’t trust him any more, coming to the beginnings of a reconciliation with him months before he died, confident there would be years and years more time. The thing is, when someone decides not to go to work one day and instead puts a bullet in their head, everything else they do is a prologue to that act. So every camping trip anecdote, every story told by a trucking company co-worker about Rick’s penchant for adopting injured animals, every joke shared by a fellow volunteer at the sobriety hotline where he dedicated his time, it all leads up to what he did and that’s how you understand it. Their lives read like a suicide note. The howl Kurt Cobain produces on “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” from the Unplugged in New York album is terrifying to me, or would be if I could listen to Nirvana anymore. I picture every Wallace book I see on a shelf as being soaked in tears. David Foster Wallace and Rick Moe, born just six months apart, were completely different people. I know that, but I have pretty hard time drawing distinctions sometimes. They both had brains that didn’t work in the same way as most other brains. I admired them both in ways that transcended any other admiration I had felt. With Rick, it was, again, the golden glow that older brothers have, on their bikes and skateboards, with their strength and jokes and cars. With Wallace, it was reading some of those Harper’s essays and experiencing Shea Stadium Beatlemania and a kind of loving fear all at once. Oh, so that’s a writer, I thought, sweating, screaming on the inside. As someone who wanted to be a writer, it was incredibly inspiring and absolutely soul crushing. Being a writer in a world that features Wallace would be like playing basketball in a world that has Michael Jordan, only none of us even know how to play basketball and we’re all injured toddlers with broken lacrosse equipment. A few years ago, I was working on a narrative non-fiction book and had a chance to go on a cruise as part of my story gathering. I knew not to bother. Maybe someone else could dare write about cruise ships, but what kind of sucker do I look like, you know? I loved my brother and I loved Wallace.

Then on September 12, 2008, fucking Wallace fucking killed himself. Look, I know well that depression is a disease. I know he fought it like a gladiator his whole life. I know, too, that he didn’t get the help he needed from the rest of us. I know that if we as a society approached depression and mental health with the same dedication and persistence with which we approached drunk driving or smoking or, hell, littering in the past, we’d bury a lot fewer of our brothers and daughters and heroes. It is important to address these issues with the help of professionals – find more information about them, here. We might have new Nirvana albums and Elliott Smith albums to enjoy. But I’m still angry at the events that took place and I’m still angry with these two heroes of mine who killed these two heroes of mine. I’m still angry for having my house burglarized. Wallace’s death brought for me a fresh version of the dread I was already experiencing after Rick’s suicide, this knowledge that life will never be like it was, it will be weirder and darker and happy at times and always always always more sad. I know now that everything Wallace wrote will be different for me than it was before. Even memories of his funniest writing include memories of the sorrow and desperation packed in there. My struggle when I do reach back into Wallace’s words will be to see beyond the shovel to the gut I felt when I heard he had died. I’ll need to get past the anger I feel for fucking ripping us off and denying us those future tomes. I’ll need to see David Foster Wallace for more than just the last thing he did. I need to remember wrestling with my brother in the rec room and going off jumps on bikes instead of his body hooked up to machines in a San Diego hospital. A few months after Rick died, I was given a notebook that he had kept as part of his ongoing recovery program. It was a journal of his fight to stay straight, to make a new life for himself that wasn’t built around drugs. I kept this notebook on a high shelf in the back of my closet for weeks, eyeing it once in a while as I passed through the room, thinking about it constantly. I had to know that there was something to Rick that I had not yet discovered, maybe some insight, at least some humanity. Finally, I took the notebook down, went to a Starbucks for some reason, got a big cup of coffee and entered his loving and terrible world. Then closed it, went to my car, and wept. Then ran some errands.

Infinite Jest is on my shelf now. Sure is big. Man, look at that thing. I hope to get to it soon. I hear it’s really great.