Tuesday, August 20, 2013

In Which David Foster Wallace Visits the State Fair

It is State Fair time in America and instead of actually going out amongst the people, the animals, the crazy food, I decided I would armchair the event by reading David Foster Wallace's report on the 1993 Illinois State Fair which is included in the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.

Written a few years before he took and reported on the luxury cruise (here), also for Harper's magazine, it has Wallace's same breathless style of reporting, same attention to details of smells and sounds, same admissions of his own fears and phobias, and same hilarious mocking tone of the people and their activities. 

Wallace grew up in small-town Illinois, so his mocking comes from a place of semi-affection, not what he calls East Coast elitism. He visits swine, beef and sheep stalls (but not the poultry pens as he was once attacked by a crazy hen); eats all the artery-clogging food that is available especially the home-made desserts; finds he is especially enthralled with the baton twirling competition and the clogging dance competition; only visits the midway to report on what horrors it holds (vomit-inducing rides and pot-smoking carnies) but refuses to put himself in any danger; and wanders around the exhibit hall in awe of the goings on there - endless ThighMaster demonstrations, window replacement come-ons, and t-shirts sporting vaguely obscene slogans.

Here is a peek from his Getting Away From Already Pretty Much Being Away From It All:

The (Press) Briefing is dull. We are less addressed than rhetorically bludgeoned by Fair personnel, product spokespeople, and middle-management State politicos. The words, excited,  proud and opportunity are used a total of 76 times before I get distracted off the count. I've suddenly figured out that all the older ladies I'm at the table with have confused Harper's with Harper's Bazaar. They think I'm some sort of food writer or recipe scout, here to maybe vault some of the Midwestern food competition winners into the homemaker's big time. Ms. Illinois State Fair, tiara bolted to the tallest coiffure I've ever seen (bun atop bun, multiple layers, a veritable wedding cake of hair), is proudly excited to have the opportunity to present two corporate guys, dead-eyed and sweating freely in suits, who in turn report the excited pride of McDonald's and Wal-Mart at having the opportunity to be this year's Fair's major corporate sponsors. It occurs to me that if I allow the Harper's Bazaar-food-scout misunderstanding to persist and circulate I can eventually show up at the Dessert Competition tents with my Press Credentials and they'll feed me free prize-winning desserts until I have to be carried off on a gurney. Older ladies in the Midwest can bake.


  1. What a "hoot" this is, Belle. I attended the Illinois State Fair, for the first and only time, in 1970. My roommate lived in Springfield and invited me down. We snuck in (don't tell anyone). Written 23 years later, Mr. Wallace's account describes what I saw, and made me smile at his narrative.

    A fine piece to read on a hot, humid, air-quality alert kind of day here in the midwest.

    1. Penny, I love that you have first-hand experience with the Illinois State Fair. I attended ours last year (mostly I stayed in the air-conditioned exhibit hall) and it seems that one state fair is pretty much like another. He made me laugh out loud!