While a graduate student at the University of Arizona, he started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and that brought him face-to-face with religion and religious people. AA’s 12-Step program is a far cry from a systematic and biblical theology, but for someone like Wallace—brilliant, arrogant, skeptical—its principles were humbling and eye-opening, especially the admonition to “surrender to a power higher than ourselves.”
Recovery ultimately took several years and involved multiple relapses, time in a residential rehab facility (brilliantly fictionalized in Infinite Jest), and at least one suicide attempt. But when Wallace came out the other end, he was a different, humbler man. As Max puts it,
To do well in recovery required modesty rather than brilliance. It was not easy for him to accept humbling adages like “Your best thinking got you here.” How smart could he be, the other program members would remind him, if here he was in a room in the basement of a church with a dozen other people talking about how he couldn’t stop drinking?
If these experiences did not lead Wallace to religion, or Christianity in particular, they did lead him to admire and respect Christians, many of them “ordinary Joes” he met in these church basements. In 1999, to one of his writer friends, he wrote, “You’re special—it’s OK—but so’s the guy across the table who’s raising two kids sober and rebuilding a ’73 Mustang.”
That respect showed up in his work, and despite his background and education, he became something of a “blue-collar intellectual.” He often wore jeans, flannel shirts, and unlaced Timberland boots. In the heat of Arizona, he would pull his long hair back with a bandana, and the look became his trademark. Wallace would skewer the pompous and the hypocritical without a trace of pity, but he developed a quiet and profound respect for the humble and sincere Christians who often led these AA meetings and served as his sponsors—people who desperately, unironically talked about a God he wanted to but could not quite embrace….
Read it all.