What to read (right now) XXIII: The Pale King Ch. 5

Josh Spilker

David Foster Wallace illustration

King Card David Foster Wallace / Overoll.com

Browse your bookstore, put it on hold at the library, or hack a Kindle, but find a way to David Foster Wallace's The Pale King. Then Rummage through all the notes saying “this isn't finished” and skip to Ch. 5 where you'll discover an amazing chapter of description about a boy named Leonard.

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And if you don't understand David Foster Wallace, you'll find some meaning here, find what he could do so incredibly well, which was pinpoint specifics beyond stereotypes, beyond mere recall, and create a fully formed character of earnestness, devotion and naivete, without saying any of those words.

Take this:

The boy's mom has a terrible accident while cleaning the oven and is rushed to the hospital, and even though he's beside himself with concern and says constant prayers for stabilization and recovery he volunteers to stay home and field calls and relay information to an alphabetized list of relatives and concerned family friends, and to make sure the mail and newspaper are brought in, and to keep the home's lights turned of and off in a random sequence at night as Officer Chuck of the Michigan State Police's Crime Stoppers public-school outreach program sensibly advises when grown-ups are suddenly called away from home, and also to call the gas company's emergency number (which he has memorized) to have them come check on what may well be a defective valve or circuit in the oven before anyone in the family is exposed to risk of accidental harm, and also (secretly) to work on an immense display of bunting and pennants and WELCOME HOME and WORLD'S GREATEST MOM signs which he plans to use the garage's extendable ladder (with a responsible neighborhood adult holding it and supervising) to very carefully affix to the front of the home with water-soluble glue so that it'll be there to greet and cheer the mom when she's released from Critical Care with a totally clean bill of health, which Leonard calls his father repeatedly at the Critical Care ward pay phone to assure him that he has absolutely no doubt of, the totally clean bill of health, calling hourly right on the dot until there's some kind of mechanical problem with the pay phone and when he dials it he just gets a high tone, which he duly reports to the telephone company's special 1-616-TROUBLE line, remembering to include the specific pay phone's eight-digit-Field Product Code (which he's written down all of just in case) as the small-print technical material on the 1-616-TROUBLE line at the very back of the phone book recommends for most rapid and efficient service.

That's one sentence. One sentence of what every English teacher says never to do, but it's great. I haven't finished The Pale King yet, the whole book isn't like that, but check out Ch. 5 and see if you want to go further. You'll at least know the eccentricities of Leonard and be better for it.

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