The Pale King’s Trailer Park Queen

David Foster Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System, was narrated by a young woman named Lenore Beadsman. But there was the sense that, rather than representing a fully actualized character of her own, Lenore was a somewhat poor stand-in for the whip-smart 23-year-old Wallace himself. But, give Wallace credit for at least attempting to see the novel through the eyes of a female narrator. Infinite Jest includes several key women as characters, and they are more maturely drawn there, but the twin pillars of that novel rest on boys big and small: Hal Incandenza and Don Gately.

Poor Toni Ware

Of all the characters who wind up as tax examiners, auditors or wigglers in Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King, Toni Ware stands as the lone female profiled in depth. She who rose from sad, unimaginable poverty and abuse to find comfort in the cold, gray IRS. Her trailer park days steeled her rather than broke her.

Wallace tells her story in an oblique, strained style that he reserves for especially sensitive or damaged human beings. The result, in Toni Ware’s case, is a hybrid Cormac McCarthyesque opening aria that begins with a 289-word sentence featuring words like “stridulation,” “anfractuous,” and “agnate.” Yet, I believe Wallace was not parodying McCarthy’s style here but searching for a way to appropriately write about a character he truly admired. And there is some evidence that Wallace based the character of Toni Ware on a real person. As Lucas Thompson points out in a recent article (“Books Are Made Out of Books”: David Foster Wallace and Cormac McCarthy), Wallace described just such a character in his 1998 interview with Gus Van Sant.

The best under grad writing student I’ve had was this girl. I met her when she was 18, she had a three year old kid. She is from a little town, trailer park, got knocked up at fifteen and was reading “Middlemarch” on the bus trying to go to the welfare office to get her bottle of milk subsidy from the Government agency. You know and she didn’t…anything she knew she taught herself. And you find these kids, and it really is one of those rare moments where you understand why teaching is this incredibly magical profession because you get to be the voice of authority that gets to say nice things instead of mean things and wake them up to the fact that they’re brilliant. You know this girl’s now going to the Iowa Writers Workshop, and this is one of two or three magical stories that I’ve had since I started here. But that’s why I prefer the undergrads to the grads.

When I first read the Toni Ware sections in The Pale King, what shocked me was how accurate and real they felt to me, someone who grew up closer to Toni Ware and her trailer park than Wallace with his tennis and Amherst education. But I think it partly explains Wallace’s fictional genius — that he was able to transform the stories of others into a realistic imaginary space. Over and over in his stories and novels, we see examples of Wallace taking another person’s story and telling it better than they can. For some, it can be hard to admit that we are not the best tellers of our own tales, but for others who can acknowledge the alchemy of transformation, become witness to the inner workings of how great fiction is made.

Poor Toni Ware, though, “just on the pale side of fair,” is perpetually linked to her mother’s heartbreaking, deranged mind and an unbreakable cycle of violence buried deep in her DNA. But yet her mother helps her escape the trailer park, even if it means living on the fringes of respectable society, even if it means she — the Mother — is killed in the process. She sacrificed her life for her daughter’s, though the daughter would not have survived without an unblinking, super-human resolve.

When The Pale King catches up with Toni as an adult, she is, like David Foster Wallace in Illinois, living alone with two large dogs. Two houses down from her is a retired County Recorder named Lotwis. She is suspicious of Lotwis. She tells him “I have nothing to live for but these dogs. . . . If anything gets done to these dogs I’ll decide it was you and I’ll sacrifice my life and freedom to destroy you and everyone you love.”

She is damaged goods, broken apart and then rebuilt stronger, in a way for someone untouched by that level of trauma to truly understand. In Infinite Jest, describing Mario, Wallace writes “People who’re somehow burned at birth, withered or ablated way past anything like what might be fair, they either curl up in their fire, or else they rise.” Toni rose.

Poverty means running away, insecurity, fear. The IRS means stability, security, assurance. It’s no wonder she went running into the arms of a federal agency.

Poor Toni’s life is reality for many, many Americans. How was Wallace able to tell it so beautifully and accurately? The power of an artist is measured by the depth of their imagination, and Toni Ware is an important facet of recognizing Wallace’s prodigious capacity for imagining the human experience.