“You don’t crack open a thousand-page book because you heard the author was a regular guy. You do it because he’s brilliant, because you want him to be brilliant.” —David Lipsky, Rolling Stone
I tried tackling David Foster Wallace’s mammoth Infinite Jest a couple of years ago while reading through Time’s 100 best English-language novels published since 1923. Infinite Jest was one of about a dozen titles I gave up on. Not because of its intimidating length (1,079 pages including 388 endnotes) or weight (approx. 3.2 pounds) or because I heard the author was a “regular guy” (I hadn’t). I gave up because I found its protagonist, Hal Incandenza, so unappealing I couldn’t imagine spending that many hours in his company.
Which brings us, naturally enough, to The End of the Tour, director James Ponsoldt’s involving dramatization of Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky’s five-day book tour interview with Wallace shortly after Infinite Jest’s publication in 1996. I had, however, heard that Wallace’s colossal and complex dystopian work was autobiographical in nature and that, following the interview (which was never published in its original form), the two Davids wound up hating each other. Would I, therefore, end up hating Wallace too, essentially giving up on the film before its second act?
Funny man Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, TV’s How I Met Your Mother) might at first seem like an odd choice to play Wallace, but his performance is remarkably self assured. Jesse Eisenberg is equally well cast as Lipsky, sporting all those typically anxious affectations and nervous tics we’ve come to expect from the star of The Social Network. The End of the Tour is based on Lipsky’s best-selling memoir Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, adapted by David Marguiles, and the Pulitzer Prize winner’s screenplay is honest and insightful and, much like its source material, “crushingly poignant” (NPR’s Michael Schaub on Lipsky’s book).
What surprised me the most about Lipsky’s version was the mutual respect the two writers appeared to share while struggling to understand each other, a recognition that, at times, bordered on friendship, even as Lipsky leaves Wallace’s snowbound Bloomington, Illinois rancher for the final time (the two would never cross paths again—Wallace committed suicide in 2008). While brief, their on-screen relationship is often intense, with Lipsky’s probing questions—especially about a rumored heroin addiction—touching some hidden nerves. The biggest faux pas the Rolling Stone reporter seems to make is hitting on Wallace’s former girlfriend (at least according to Wallace; Lipsky claims he was simply getting her contact information to later corroborate facts) and it threatens to upset their camaraderie permanently. Lipsky’s Wallace might purport to be just an average Joe, but he reacts poorly whenever someone dares to share his spotlight. Call it paranoia. Lipsky admits he wanted what Wallace already had—fame, adoring fans, a Time magazine cover. He claims Wallace just wanted more.
I didn’t hate the David Foster Wallace portrayed in The End of the Tour. I only wish I had more confidence that Lipsky’s interpretation served both parties equally. I found the Wallace in the film interesting and articulate, guarded at times yet vulnerable at others, and I liked that he liked his dogs, two daft black labs that would come snuffling around Lipsky first thing in the morning, interrupting his sleep. “But what’s with the bandana?”
(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth