So, yes, more press attention for David Foster Wallace, sprawling novelist, sterling essayist, suicide. The appalling news two weekends ago that Wallace had hanged himself quickly ballooned into a parade of memorial appreciations; to read the daily litany of tributes was to experience afresh W.H. Auden’s description of a writer’s death: “He became his admirers.”
All the more reason to return to Wallace’s actual prose, a task made convenient by Back Bay Books, which in July republished the long essay “Up, Simba” as the short book McCain’s Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Reporters, Thinking About Hope (Back Bay, 144 pages, $9.99). The main title betrays the publisher’s desire to capitalize on the celebrity of a GOP presidential nominee (a man who became his detractors); the subtitle suggests Wallace’s more contemplative intent when he climbed aboard the McCain2000 bus to careen through the South Carolina primary as a Rolling Stone “pencil.” In light of the author’s death and the politician’s surge, revisiting the essay feels vital: Did Wallace notice something we missed?
He noticed a great deal: McCain’s Promise remains a matchless work of observation, tallying the minutiae of campaign-trail routine until it builds to a recognition of how America receives its opinions through the filter of exhausted sound technicians and snooty newspaper scribes (immortalized here as the Twelve Monkeys, with their “exact same plummy Ivy League honk”). McCain himself is never interviewed—an omission that is exactly the point, since Wallace is meditating on the slippery veracity of political personality: “It feels impossible, in February 2000, to tell whether John McCain is a real leader or merely a very talented political salesman, an entrepreneur who’s seen a new market-niche and devised a way to fill it.”
It feels easier now. But the enduring significance of the essay is its attempt to reclaim threadbare slogans like “leadership” and “inspire.” Wallace weighs McCain’s apparent candor against his strategic calculations—and recognizes that the candor is a calculation—while still longing for this candidate to be different from the others: “Men who aren’t enough like human beings even to hate—what one feels when they loom into view is just an overwhelming lack of interest, the sort of deep disengagement that is often a defense against pain. Against sadness.”
Eight years later, it hurts to read that paragraph. To look at John McCain through the eyes of David Foster Wallace is to see two men who grasped the rarity of communicating honestly with other people, and who understood how success in this world is a series of tiny but crucial moral compromises. One man despaired at this human deceit and corruption; the other was all too willing to embrace it. One man is dead; the other is on the cusp of becoming president of the United States. It’s hard to say which story is sadder.