DFW* RIP** I'd normally write something like this with all the books in front of me for reference, consulting them for the specific passages, things like that. They're 20 feet from me right now, and I still can't walk, so I'm going to do this all from memory.
I think it was when Vonnegut died, I wrote on Livejournal that, in a way, I was lucky. All my old idols were dying after I got over them. Hunter S. Thompson, Vonnegut, even if Harlan Ellison were to die now, I'd be okay with it. I wouldn't be devastated. All my childhood heroes could die without devastating me.
David Foster Wallace wasn't a childhood hero of mine. He was an adult hero of mine. And while devastating is not the proper word for how his apparent suicide has left me, distraught, confused, depressed, and angry all are.
David Foster Wallace was one of my favorite writers. If people asked me my top five favorite writers, he was always on the list (Salman Rushdie, J.D. Salinger, Hemingway, and some free agent almost always rounded out the rest). I read Infinite Jest in four days, a feat I'm still not sure how I accomplished. I've read every published book of his (except for the last third of Everything and More, once I realized that I hadn't understood the second third).
David Foster Wallace helped teach me how to write. He was definitely the artist I aspired most after, and the one I most tried to emulate. He taught me the value of footnotes. And of endnotes. And parenthetical statements. And how it wasn't a crime to suffer from hyperpolysyllabicsesquipedalianism, as long as the words you were choosing were the right words. This is probably his biggest crime. He inspired people without his talent to try what he did so effortlessly. My experiments with footnotes and endnotes have been modest (the web offered new possibilities with the potential of pop-up notes--hyperlinks that would pop up your note right there in the middle of the page that you could close immediately after reading, rather than having to flip back and forth between pages, but I never figured out how to do that, and no one else started doing it other than John Darnielle, so I assumed it'd be too confusing to introduce), but he made me feel ambitious.
Even without the inspiration, there are the books. "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" and his account of a trip to the Illinois State Fair are not only some of the funniest pieces ever written, but the most perceptive. "Consider the Lobster" is itself fascinating, and his talks on TV and White Noise are worth the time to read as well. The collection A Supposed Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again is definitely the place to start. You won't regret it.
And then there's Infinite Jest. Or "Infinite Book," as some people call it. Like they think that it's THEIR joke that DFW named a book over a thousand pages with the word "infinite" in it. It reminds me of Stephin Merritt complaining about people making jokes about 69 Love Songs. "Yes, 69. It's my joke. Not yours. I knew what I was doing when I put it in there."
Infinite Jest is a massive book. It's a masterpiece about addiction, relationships, tennis, and many other things. It's heartbreaking, but it also has the funniest sustained bit of writing that I've ever read (The Eschaton sequence, if you've read the book), a piece that made me laugh for roughly 15 minutes of reading. The plot is really impossible to describe coherently, and I'm not going to try. The early chapters, which jump from character to character, some of whom are more literate than others, makes it hard to pick up the momentum of the book at first, but once you get going, it propelled me along and I read it in four days. Make sure you have at least two bookmarks, for the footnotes.
The one problem Infinite Jest has, and in fact nearly every piece of DFW fiction, there's no denoument. There's often even no climax. You know large pieces of the outcome, but DFW has the perverse tendency to set everything up, show you what's going to happen, and then deny you the actual playing out of action. This can be very frustrating when you turn the last page of a book, but it's ultimately satisfying with most of his work.
But not his life. David Foster Wallace hanged himself the other day. We don't know why, and ultimately, it doesn't matter. He denied us the denouement for his own personal life, and we're left with a couple of novels, a couple of short stories, some great essays, and the knowledge that he had potential to burn, and talent to spare, and pain he wasn't sharing, and that ultimately, if there's any more writing to be had from him, it's sitting on his desk, and that's all we get.