After David Foster Wallace’s tragic death last September 12, while unburdening my shelf of his works to give them a good nostalgic thumbing-through, I remembered an LP in my collection—plucked several summers ago from the dollar bin of a liquidating Cambridge record store—by an artist with the same name as one of Wallace’s most memorable characters. The album, called Priorities, was by Michael Pemulis, whose literary namesake is the twitchy Allstonian best friend cum drug dealer of Hal Incandenza, protagonist of Infinite Jest. Despite the coincidence of names and appealing cover art, the uninspiring bar-band-trapped-in-a-studio sound had caused me to quickly banish Michael Pemulis to the bottom of a milk crate.
When I pulled the album out last September, though, I noticed it had been recorded in Phoenix, where some of Infinite Jest takes place, and released in 1987, the year that Wallace graduated with an MFA from the University of Arizona.
“I’ve never heard of the author or the book,” said Tony Victor, the founder of the label that put out the Pemulis record, via phone from Phoenix. He explained that Pemulis (pronounced ‘PEEM-yoo-lis’) was his own brother’s stage name and that compared to other Placebo Records artists—among them the influential experimental rock band, Sun City Girls—Pemulis was “very, very not popular.” The author, Victor guessed, got the name from a playbill.
But after we got off the phone, Victor (like Pemulis, a pseudonym) remembered that twenty years earlier, he’d heard of a young author who’d used the names of other Placebo personalities in a story. He Googled the names until he realized that the author was Wallace. Then he called me back and insisted, “[Wallace] had to have known us or someone who knew us.”
The earlier Wallace borrowing is found in the title story of Girl with Curious Hair, his first collection. It begins, “Gimlet dreamed that if she did not see a concert last night she would become a type of liquid, therefore my friends Mr. Wonderful, Big, Gimlet and I went to see Keith Jarrett play a piano concert at the Irvine Concert Hall in Irvine last night.” Mr. Wonderful and Big, it turns out, were the names of Placebo-ites.
“No more than 20 people knew the nickname Big,’” Victor said. Big was a bouncer, not a musician, a member of the Placebo “inner circle” and so unlikely to be pulled from a playbill.
Victor said he looked at as many photos online as he could find of Wallace, but didn’t recognize him. Then he remembered that Big’s big brother had studied Creative Writing at the University of Arizona in Tucson in the ’80s.
“I’m the one who played Pemulis for him,” confirmed Big’s big brother when contacted by phone. “Girl with Curious Hair” came about, he said matter-of-factly, “because I told him stories in my living room while listening to a Keith Jarrett record.”
Big’s big brother, who asked to be identified as such, is a veteran of the US military who speaks in a sonorous monotone. He and Wallace bonded at U of A over their dislike for the way their master’s program was run. Big and his brother had traveled with the Placebo Records family (which included a musician named Mr. Wonderful) on a psychedelic tour of the southwest. Later, the elder sibling related the adventure to his fellow MFA candidate. Two days later, Big’s big brother said, Wallace approached him with a thirty-page story.
“Dave was ready to stick the story in a box,” he told me. Wallace, apparently, was reluctant to try to publish someone else’s subject matter. “But I couldn’t possibly let him do that. It’s a great story. It’s not my story, it’s his story. Big saw the workshop version and thought I wrote it because of the detail. I said, ‘No, it’s by this strange kid from Illinois, Dave Wallace.’”
He added that Wallace, who was fresh out of his undergraduate years, was attracted to stories of experience because he thought his life was bare of detail. “Dave liked to hear me tell stories,” he said. “He didn’t know what to write about. He thought he had used up all he knew in Broom of the System.
“Dave used to say that his life story would be, ‘David sat in the smoking room of the library’—they still had smoking rooms in those days—‘trying to think of the next line to write.’”
The Michael Pemulis of Placebo Records, when reached by phone, admitted he was also unfamiliar with Wallace’s work and seemed unruffled to hear that his alias had been appropriated in a popular novel. The name was taken from someone else anyway, he said, adding, “It’s interesting to me how events that seem like they’re meaningless can turn into something else.” I had to agree, as the chords of “Posthumous Gratitude,” the first song on Priorities, poured out from the turntable behind me.