I can only presume that Allston-Brighton, the joint designation for the semi-detached neighborhoods of (wait for it) Allston and Brighton, is not a typical stop for tourists visiting one of America’s oldest and most historic cities. If Boston is the “Hub of the Universe,” as Oliver Wendell Holmes nicknamed it, then Allston-Brighton is an overlooked bolt on its assembly. Yet Brighton, and to a lesser extent Allston, is exactly where I spent most of the half-week I devoted to tracking down locations from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest last summer.
It isn’t always easy to tell which is which: Allston is definitely to the north and east, while Brighton is more to the south and west, but their border, such as it is, is inconsistently observed. This ambiguity is especially evident around Harvard Avenue, where neighborhood-themed business names seem to reflect personal preference more than geographic certitude.
Further complicating this delicate delineation is Wallace’s insertion of the autonomous enclave of Enfield, home to a majority of the novel’s characters and its twinned primary settings—Enfield Tennis Academy and Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House. While Allston and Brighton are part of Boston, Enfield seems to be an unincorporated carve-out. Geographically, Wallace describes it as a:
…kind of arm-shape extending north from Commonwealth Avenue and separating Brighton into Upper and Lower, its elbow nudging East Newton’s ribs and its fist sunk into Allston…
Save for the Newton line and Comm. Ave., determining its borders involves mostly guesswork. Based on this description, it seems that Enfield covers much of what we know as Brighton—there is not much of it south of Commonwealth—and I suspect it terminates in the north at Washington and Cambridge streets. However, its northeast corner is more difficult to discern.
Wallace wrote that Enfield makes at least a “good six square blocks … brachiform incursion into the Allston Spur”—and I’m still not sure what counts as that—but few specific locations to the northwest of Warren Street are unambiguously designated as Enfield in the book; the Franciscan Children’s Hospital (real) lies directly across the street from Brighton (Enfield) Marine, while the Svelte Nail Co. (fictional) is said to be on N. Harvard Street in what must be Allston. If true, that “fist” might cover a good deal of Allston as well—that the Enfield Tennis Academy is described as “a kind of raised cyst on the township’s elbow” suggests this is the case. On the other hand, knowing what I do of geography and anatomy, I had figured “East Newton” more likely the detached shoulder, and Enfield’s elbow nudging recumbent Brookline’s belly.
It is also possible that the reach of Wallace’s narrative imagination exceeded the grasp of his spatial visualization. Indeed, the book is not without occasional inconsistencies, especially within fictional Enfield. The amazing thing is that enough is discoverable to make the truly elusive worth arguing about—a microcosm of Infinite Jest itself.
On page 240 of all paper-based English-language editions with which I am familiar, Enfield gets its most detailed description, a chapter-length sightseer’s guide, which begins:
Enfield MA is one of the stranger little facts that make up the idea that is metro Boston, because it is a township composed almost entirely of medical, corporate, and spiritual facilities.
It goes on to name 19 discrete addresses, nearly half of which are reality-based, whether existing now or at one time. The real ones tend to be of the “medical” and “spiritual” varieties, including St. Elizabeth’s and Brighton Marine. The fictional ones tend to be the “corporate” type, including the comically ominous (Empire Waste Displacement Co.) and the purely comical (Leisure Time Ice Company). A few even play supporting roles later in the story, including St. John’s Seminary (real) and the National Cranio-Facial Pain Foundation (not).
The novel describes Enfield around Commonwealth in Brighton as “particularly unpleasant,” but in 2011 the area didn’t seem so bad to me. Yes, much of it is fairly bland—“medical, corporate, and spiritual facilities” dominate now as much as ever—but Harvard Street and Brighton Avenue have their share of restaurants, clubs, and tattoo parlors catering to a type almost entirely absent from Wallace’s Boston: the hipster. Either the area has rebounded or Wallace exaggerated its decrepitude. Subsequent conversations with Boston residents of the late 1980s suggest the answer is likely both.