(click to enlarge panorama)
Orin Incandenza, the oldest son of James and Avril, has his pick of universities upon graduation from the Enfield Tennis Academy. Possessed of a preternaturally accomplished “lob,” he’s recruited by schools from the Big Ten to the Pac-10 and in between—the University of New Mexico goes as far as hiring “a mariachi band that established itself under his dorm-room’s window six nights running.” However, for unstated reasons the narrator evidently finds troubling, Orin settles on Boston University, “only just about three clicks down the hill” and, the narrator disdains: “Not a tennis power.”
But that point is moot following a “destiny-grade event” at Nickerson Field, one which sends Orin on an altogether different athletic trajectory, and wins him the affections of Joelle van Dyne, a.k.a. the P.G.O.A.T., i.e. “Prettiest Girl Of All Time.”
In his freshman year at B.U., Orin is furnished with a “lucrative work-study job” turning on “sprinklers that were already on automatic timers” at “historic” Nickerson. One day, about to saunter off the field through the (nonexistent) “south exit-tunnel,” Orin hears the horrific crack of broken bones as the team’s punter is accidentally, season-endingly injured by its top defensive back. The accident sends the ball tumbling down the field toward him and, with no one close by, he simply kicks it back:
Orin, before that seminal moment, had never tried to kick any sort of ball before in his whole life, was the unengineered and kind of vulnerable revelation that ended up moving Joelle van Dyne way more than status or hang-time.
Orin soon finds far greater “success at kicking big egg-shaped balls” compared to “anything he’d accomplished hitting little round ones.” That year, the B.U. Terriers win the “Yankee Conference” and go on to a “non-victorious” appearance opposite Clemson in the “Ken-L-Ration-Magnavox-Kemper-Insurance-Forsythia Bowl”—a non-trivial accomplishment for a Division II team. For Orin, it is a ticket to the NFL, where by the time the novel begins, he is playing for the Arizona Cardinals.
Funny thing, though: not only is B.U. not a football power, by the time Orin would have suited up for the Terriers, there would have been no football to play. Boston University abandoned its football program following a one-win season in 1997, just one year after Infinite Jest was published.
But Nickerson Field is still very much present on the western end of the Boston University campus, between Comm. Ave. and the Storrow 500. From Harry Agganis Way, it’s not difficult to stand just outside the iron gates and look in—while looking back to make sure the campus police aren’t too worried about what you’re up to, since their headquarters is next door—and look back again to survey its expanse of well-trimmed grass.
Here one can easily imagine Orin picking up the ball and discovering a kind of lob he never knew he had in him. Sure, one has to mentally re-orient the field 90 degrees, and pretend there’s a south tunnel under stands I coudn’t adequately photograph from this angle. But with a little imagination it’s possible.