David Foster Wallace was incredibly competitive. This probably shouldn't come as a surprise to you; it takes a competitive writer to put out something as audacious as Infinite Jest. But on reading D.T. Max's Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story*, I was a little surprised to find how competitive he really was. He read reviews and railed against the negative ones to everyone who'd listen. He and his best friend, Jonathan Franzen, were continually comparing their critical receptions, and at one point they each tried to trick the other into reading first at a literary festival, to give the appearance of an inferior band opening for another one. In short, Wallace was very concerned about how his work was perceived.
There are many revelations in Ghost Story, and not all of them are flattering. But Max layers detail upon detail—including flaws—into a convincing, and moving, portrait of a highly intelligent and highly troubled writer. Ghost Story is just over three hundred pages long, which feels slight for a portrait of a writer not known for his concision, and it feels as though it slices through the last decade of Wallace's life a bit too quickly. Before you know it, you're hurtling toward his suicide, like rounding the top of a hill in a car with no brakes, and there's nothing to do but brace yourself. But Max deserves credit for acknowledging that the writing life is not always exciting, and for keeping his pryings out of the more salacious details. (Wallace apparently enjoyed a string of one-night stands, and he wasn't shy about discussing details with friends.) It's brisk and insightful and smart, and probably the best Wallace biography that's going to come out for decades now.
* Though I'm enjoying my streak of reading genre fiction on my trip—more reviews of those to come—Ghosts was a welcome, and necessary, diversion from the good-guys-vs.-bad-guys mindset that the genre fiction put me into. Even better, since I'm sloughing the books off once I'm finished so I don't have to carry them around the country, I managed to trade Ghosts for a bag full of delicious Cuban guava puff pastries with someone. The tradeoff came in the circular driveway at University of Tampa, just outside of a palm tree-lined park overlooking the swollen Hillsborough River. It was one of the best, and weirdest, ways I've ever gotten rid of a used book. I know people praise Kindles as the perfect device for reading as you travel, but the pleasure of reading the weight out of your backpack on an extended trip is a real sense of accomplishment, especially if you manage to barter the books as you go.