The many superlatives David Foster Wallace receives are now as unnecessary as they are deserved. Since his death in 2008, Wallace has had his canonization about as firmly established as a contemporary's can be. In addition to two (soon to be three) books comprising his unpublished work, we've seen a spate of books and articles declaring and interpreting the profound vitality of his oeuvre. And now we have the first biography. D.T. Max's "Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story" is not the "Infinite Jest"-sized tome many readers might have anticipated. It's only a few hundred pages, but those pages are thoroughly researched and dense with information.
Max's is an honest and complex version of Wallace that avoids some of the hagiography that has understandably been prevalent these past few years; he presents a more real Wallace -- anger, pettiness, vanity and all. These reality checks serve as important reminders to resist conflating the Wallace who walked among us and the exceedingly generous and empathetic Wallace we know from the page.
And what was life like for Wallace the man? Max doesn't overdo the California years, which received disproportionate attention after Wallace's suicide, but he does take the opportunity to restate the argument of his New Yorker profile: that Wallace's failure to complete "The Pale King" was a significant factor in his death. Wallace's early writing years, up through the publication of "Infinite Jest," receive the most attention, and it's in these chapters that we learn how autobiographical much of the fiction is -- Max provides an almost story-by-story correspondence of word and world for the early work. Wallace's troubled relationship with his mother (of which we never get to the real nub) and his volatile romance with Mary Karr are particularly relevant to Max's readings here. Wallace's Illinois years get less attention, perhaps because those were relatively stable years that came closest to fulfilling a younger Wallace's prophecy that future biographers would write: "Dave sat in the smoking lounge of the library, pensively taking a drag from a cigarette and trying to think of the next line."
One fun outcome of the book is gaining a better sense of how good Wallace really was at tennis and chess, hobbies about which he was an unreliable self-assessor. Less fun, but more significant, of course, is learning the severity of Wallace's drug use and depression, topics about which he was intentionally vague. With help, he survived the former; the latter, though, was overwhelming and ultimately unbearable. As he wrote about the disease in his first published story, "you are the sickness yourself." "Every Love Story" confirms that Wallace's story is as sad as any of those he wrote and invites just one superlative: Wallace was our best writer -- and Max's biography is worthy of his legacy.
Scott F. Parker's books include "Revisited: Notes on Bob Dylan," "Running After Prefontaine: A Memoir" and "Coffee: Grounds for Debate." He lives in Minneapolis.