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Literary star, out of the limelight

For David Foster Wallace, a plum teaching gig in Pomona is both hide-out and a reason to leave the house.

April 27, 2003|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

On a warm, windblown evening in late March, David Foster Wallace showed up at an old-style Mexican place in Pomona called El Ranchero. He was wearing shorts and a Pomona College sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off, so that he looked like a faintly menacing guy you might see late one night at a 7-Eleven buying Gatorade.

Wallace, the author of, most famously, the 1996 brick of a novel called "Infinite Jest," is finishing his first year as the Roy Edward Disney Professor of Creative Writing at Pomona. He's a literary star -- MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant winner, compared before he was 35 to Pynchon, to DeLillo -- newly arrived in Southern California.

Landing him was a coup for Pomona College, but getting the word out has been another matter. A bucolic and progressive campus 35 miles east of Los Angeles, off the 10 freeway, the school is a geographically undesirable place from which to generate attention. This suits Wallace, who moved here from Illinois, just fine (the public information office was not even able to get him to take a faculty photo). What he says about L.A. is polite while conveying that he isn't going native. He liked Union Station when he saw it, and attended the symphony when his parents visited. There have been a few readings, and once he went to Staples Center, to see tennis. Los Angeles and its world of special invitations evidently does not beckon him.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 30, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Pomona College -- An article and headline in Sunday's Calendar about author David Foster Wallace implied that Pomona College is in Pomona. It is in Claremont.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 04, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Pomona College -- An article and headline last Sunday about author David Foster Wallace implied Pomona College is located in Pomona. It is in Claremont.

Wallace never completely agreed to be interviewed (even after the interview had started). Beforehand, in numerous phone calls, he assured me that driving to Pomona to talk to him about the course he is teaching this semester, an upper-division literature seminar called "Eclectic/Obscure Fictions for Writers," was certain to end in thumb-twiddling disappointment for both of us.

He had nothing grand to say about the eclectic/obscure books, all novels, that he had chosen for his syllabus. But whatever, he said. If I wanted to schlep to Pomona, sit in traffic for two hours ("You're a big boy," is what he said), then he supposed we could have dinner. These negotiations -- always on Tuesdays, shortly after 5, Wallace saying he had to call back because he had a student with him -- took place for several months. His return calls were always punctual.

Now that he'd arrived at the restaurant, Wallace made no move to identify himself. In fact, he was still hiding, sitting at a small table near the entrance with his head held low. There were only two people at the bar, and one of them was a middle-aged lawyer nursing a drink. Wallace sat where he was. I saw glasses, a familiar-seeming hangdog face. He appeared to be ducking.

"OK, what to tell you that's true and halfway interesting," was one of the first things he said. "I've taught courses like this before. The last school I was at, Illinois State University -- in Normal, Ill., the Fighting Redbirds -- I worked largely with graduate students, so I taught what's known as a graduate seminar. I haven't done it with undergrads before, and so for that reason the format is both familiar and very, very new to me."

The way he spoke -- in tightly wound, fully realized thought, his diction excellent, his tone formal, any high-mindedness kept in check by free-floating jargon -- sort of replicated the experience of reading him. It's not that Wallace is a borg, finally. It's that he's socially awkward and very guarded, and so in person, his intelligence naturally becomes his greatest defense.

"It's an odd question to ask me," Wallace said, when he was asked if one should worry about never having read certain "classic" works of literature. "I worry about it, but for me it gets very muddled between what are my expectations for myself as a human being and what do I want to read professionally. Totally between you and me, use it if you want, but my mom and I both laugh. Mom teaches literature at a junior college; mom's never read 'Moby-Dick.' I've never read 'The Iliad.' I know I've stood in gatherings and made facial expressions meant to communicate that I've read it, but in fact I haven't."

And yet, it came out, he has read the entire Tom Clancy oeuvre. On airplanes.

"Now, the last couple have been shaky," he said. "But for a long time there was no better airplane reading than Tom Clancy. Have you ever? Forget it, he doesn't need advertising."

Wallace marveled at the way Clancy can suspend plot for a 25-page treatise on how a nuclear weapon works. "And it's absolutely fascinating," he said. "I don't know how this guy finds this stuff out and then is able to render it in language that an eighth-grader could understand."

A private presence

Wallace, who is 41, arrived at Pomona tenured, his salary drawn from the interest from a $1.75-million endowment given the school by Disney, Walt Disney's nephew and a Pomona alumnus. The mandate, in part, was to find a name writer.

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