The Boston Public Library, and more specifically its flagship McKim Building in Copley Square, figures in two separate storylines within Infinite Jest. One contains an element of autobiography, while the other is pure fiction. I won’t try to connect them; they share a setting, and that’s about all, so I’ll split this entry into two parts.
The library is alluded to by Hal twice: first in the novel’s opening scene, where he boasts to University of Arizona admissions, “I consume libraries.” Later, in one of his long telephone conversations with semi-estranged older brother Orin, Hal reveals it is the library’s “cutting-edge professional grief- and trauma-therapy section” that he specifically devoured, following the suicide of their father, the brilliant but troubled James “Himself” Incandenza:
‘…I went down and chewed through the Copley Square library’s grief section. Not disk. The actual books. I read Kübler-Ross, Hinton. I slogged through Kastenbaum and Kastenbaum. I read things like Elizabeth Harper Neeld’s Seven Choices: Taking the Steps to New Life After Losing Someone You Love…’
All of these refer to real authors and works, though the subtitle of Neeld’s book has changed in subsequent editions. The most famous of these is the late Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, whose five stages of grief has passed into American popular culture (cf. The Simpsons). Likewise Clara Hinton is an author and “resiliency coach.” The only one who confuses me is Kastenbaum and Kastenbaum because, as far as I can tell Death, Society and Human Experience seems to be the authorship of only one Kastenbaum, Robert J.
If this seems like an oddly specific level of detail, then I strongly recommend reading “David Foster Wallace’s Private Self-Help Library,” written by Maria Bustillos for The Awl in April 2011. Though Wallace’s struggle with depression was explored by D.T. Max for The New Yorker and David Lipsky for Rolling Stone, Bustillos’ report from the Wallace archive at the University of Texas’ Ransom Center added significantly more detail than was previously known. It’s no easy read, but is all the better for it.
The “Copley Library” also figures into the story of Emil “yrstruly” Minty, Bobby C and Poor Tony Krause. As Minty’s garbled narration explains, they cook up in the restrooms in daytime and, after hours, camp out on the “hot air blowergrate” around back. Having scored from Dr. Wo at Hung Toys on the cold “Xmas Eve” that began in “Harvard Squar,” Minty continues:
were’ cooking up and notice Poor Tony doesnt’ the least bitch when yrstruly and C tie off first in line seeing as were’ the ones that copped it and Poor Tonys’ gotto wait as usal, except I notice he doesnt’ bitch even a little…
Noticing something amiss in Poor Tony’s patience, Minty “purplously [lets] C tie off and boot up first,” and wisely so. C goes into convulsions almost immediately—dying within minutes or even seconds—“in the most fucked up fashions…” And finally we discover why Poor Tony hid from Wo by the China Pearl: a known associate of P.T. Krause had screwed Wo on a “fronted bundle.” Minty concludes:
It might sound fucking low but the reason we had to leave the decesed body C in one of the librarys’ dumsters is the reason is because the Copley Squars’ Finest know it is our personnel hot air blowergrate and if we leave C there its’ a sure pinch for us as known aquaintance and a period of Kicking The Bird in holding in a cell…
I can’t imagine the Boston Public Library was altogether thrilled by the nature of its appearance in this story, but the problem of homelessness around Copley Square was not Wallace’s invention. And though I found dozens of local news articles referencing the heating grates as a regular sleeping spot, I couldn’t find any mention of when the wrought iron fencing was installed; according to this Boston Phoenix story, they remained accessible at least through winter 2003. After that I can’t say, though I’m sure some readers will know the answer.
The fencing off of the “blowergrates” seems in keeping with the general cleanup of Boston that has occurred since the 1990s, not to mention the dramatically declining crime rates nationwide. In the novel, President Johnny Gentle, Famous Crooner won with the slogan of a “Tighter, Tidier Nation”—echoing George H.W. Bush’s call for a “kinder, gentler nation”— but here reality seems to have outdone fiction. Whether the real president got his wish is open to debate; that the fictional one got his seems undeniable.