David Foster Wallace and the Jesuit Accountant

Anyone else notice that the late David Foster Wallace's much-talked about but not fully finished novel, The Pale King, features a Jesuit accounting teacher? I haven't read the book, but it seems like a surprising character choice. Is there anything to this, or was Wallace just being clever—trying to imbue his character with a measure of seriousness by assigning him an otherworldly profession? It wouldn't be the first time the Jesuits have been used to such purposes. Here an exerpt from Tom McCarthy's review in Sunday's Times. The subject of the book is (appropriately enough, given the day) the IRS:

To its own agents and enforcers, the I.R.S. even offers a role and status akin to that of the lone, righteous gunslinger in the Wild West or the caped crusader in Gotham. “Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is,” accounting students are informed with evangelical zeal by their instructor. “To retain care and scrupulosity about each detail from within the teeming wormball of data and rule and exception and contingency which constitutes real-world accounting — this is heroism.” The proposition is comic (one of the novel’s would-be heroes practices saying “Freeze! Treasury!” in front of his mirror) but sincere as well: the instructor is a Jesuit priest, and the scene is redacted with a genuinely epiphanic air. In a universe of veiled and veiling numbers, the task of drawing the true ones out into the light and holding them up for inspection, clear and remainder-­less, really is a sacred one. “Gentlemen,” the instructor rounds off his sermon by saying, “you are called to account.”

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Two of our bloggers, Vince Miller and Tom Beaudoin, may want to weigh in. Tom wrote about DFW shortly after his suicide.

Tim Reidy

 

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