A few years back I was flying out to California, reading Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace. Suddenly, up there over the midwest, I felt agitated and flinchy, on the brink of tears. If the reader was a guy standing outdoors, Dave's prose had the effect of stripping his clothes away and leaving him naked, with super-sensitised skin, newly susceptible to the weather, whatever that weather might be. If it was a sunny day, he was going to feel the sun more. If it was a blizzard, it was going to really sting. Something about the prose was inducing a special variety of openness, that I might call terrified tenderness: a sudden new awareness of what a fix we're in on this earth, stuck in these bodies, with these minds.
This alteration seemed more spiritual than aesthetic. I wasn't just "reading a great story" – what was happening was more primal and important: my mind was being altered in the direction of compassion, by a shock methodology that was, in its subject matter, actually very dark. I was undergoing a kind of ritual stripping away of the habitual. The person who had induced this complicated feeling was one of the sweetest, most generous people I've ever known.
I first met Dave at the home of a mutual friend in Syracuse. I'd just read Girl with Curious Hair and was terrified that this breakfast might veer off into, say, a discussion of Foucault or something, and I'd be humiliated in front of my wife and kids. But no: I seem to remember he was wearing a Mighty Mouse T-shirt. Like Chekhov in those famous anecdotes, who put his nervous provincial visitors at ease by asking them about pie-baking and the local school system, he defused the tension by turning the conversation to us. Our kids' interests, what life was like in Syracuse, our experience of family life. He was about as open and curious and accepting a person as I'd ever met, and I left feeling I'd made a great new friend. And I had. We were together only occasionally, corresponded occasionally but every meeting felt super-charged, almost – if this isn't too corny – sacramental.
I don't know much about Dave's spiritual life but I see him as a great American Buddhist writer, in the lineage of Whitman and Ginsberg. He was a wake-up artist. That was his work, as I see it, both on the page and off it: he went around waking people up. He was, if this is even a word, a celebrationist, who gave us new respect for the world through his reverence for it, a reverence that manifested as attention, an attention that produced that electrifying, all-chips-in, aware-in-all-directions prose of his.