Late summer is carnival season, when fairgrounds across Middle America sprout blooms of creaky steel whirling machines and stands of sugary fried food, jostling us from our languor and threatening nausea en masse. Which is, of course, part of their allure. When I was 14, I threw up mid-tumble on The Egg Roll at my hometown fair. When I was maybe 6, I nearly fell out of the Pirate Ship at the Illinois State Fair. As the carnie cranked the ship’s pendulous mast to perpendicular heights, the zero gravity at its peak caused me to float out from under the safety bar. My mom held on for dear life with one hand and grabbed me by the back of the pants with the other. We understood such perils to be part of the price of admission. But I didn’t realize just how common our experience was until I read David Foster Wallace, who, 20 years ago, visited the Illinois State Fair in Springfield and wrote about it for Harper’s. “Ticket to the Fair,” published in July 1994, is a hysterical, vivid portrayal of life amid the fair’s many attractions and dangers, as endured by our intrepid novelist on an early nonfiction assignment.
The essay, reported as Wallace was still writing Infinite Jest, marked his return to Central Illinois, the region he (and I) grew up in, and then left — or fled — to attend college out East. This full-on re-immersion catches him “humidity stunned” and a bit bewildered. Consider first his depiction of the passing landscape on his drive to Springfield: “Corn, corn, soybeans, corn, exit ramp, corn, and every few miles an outpost way off on a reach in the distance — house, tree with tire swing, barn, satellite dish.” And of local weather: “Midwestern thunderstorms are real Old Testament temple-clutchers: Richter-scale thunder, big zig-zags of cartoon lightning.” The Midwest landscape and weather set the stage for the absurdity that comes next.
Part of what I like so much about this piece is the simplicity of Wallace’s conceit. He goes, he sees, he feels, he ponders. And he writes 15,000 gripping words in time-stamped, straight chronology. It’s ostensibly a light, playful assignment — commissioned, Wallace suspects, because “every so often editors at East Coast magazines slap their foreheads and remember 90 percent of the country lies between the coasts, and figure they’ll engage somebody to do pith-helmeted anthropology about something rural and heartlandish.” What Wallace delivers instead is a strangely funny journey into a monoculture heart of darkness, minus Mr. Kurtz. The fair is a place of wanton violence, harassment, gluttony, prejudice and madness. “Ag pros” kick and neglect their distressed animals; a female friend is hung upside-down on The Zipper and gawked at by carnies; onlookers at a girls’ baton twirling contest become victims of errant baton missiles; dads — “florid, blue-jawed, bull-necked, flinty-eyed men who oversee sanctioned brawls” — coach their sons at Golden Gloves boxing matches; and the carnies of “Happy Hollow” sacrifice an unwitting East Coaster to the meanest ride of all, a gigantic slingshot contraption that launches him over the fairgrounds. For Wallace, these aren’t mere rides; they’re near-death experiences.
What makes the writing so good — beyond the distinctive wielding of pop cultural references and brand names, the shot-by-shot descriptions of action, the trademark verbal pyrotechnics — is Wallace’s singular point of view. His confessed hypersensitivity gives him license to distort and exaggerate. Here he is, watching his lady friend, “Native Companion,” being given a free spin on The Zipper. The carnies have already been “ogling her nethers”:
Now the operator is joggling the choke lever so The Zipper stutters back and forth, forward and backward, making Native Companion’s top car spin around and around on its hinges. His colleague’s T-shirt has a stoned Ninja Turtle on it, toking on a joint. There’s a distended A-sharp scream from the whirling car, as if Native Companion is being slow-roasted. I summon saliva to step in and really say something stern, but at this point they start bringing her down. The operator is deft at his panel; the car’s descent is almost fluffy. His hands on the levers are a kind of parody of tender care. The descent takes forever — ominous silence from Native Companion’s car. The two carnies are laughing and slapping their knee. I clear my throat twice. Native Companion’s car descends, stops. Jiggles of movement in the car, then the door’s latch slowly turns. I expect whatever husk of a person emerges from the car to be hunched and sheet-white, dribbling fluids.
Instead, she bounds out. “That was fucking great! Joo see that? Son of a bitch spun that car sixteen times, did you see?” This woman is native Midwestern, from my hometown. My prom date a dozen years ago.
A version of this article appeared in Wallace’s aptly titled essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. While he failed to have a blast, Wallace still manages to hint at enjoyment on occasion, admiring, for instance, the wonderful smell of cow manure, “warm and herbal and blameless,” or the low-pitched grunting of unsuspecting swine (the calm before the blood-curdling squeals).
It’s in front of the Poultry Building where he breaks down from heat exhaustion and sensory overload. You can almost hear him panting between sentences:
I’ve been a rock about the prospect of poultry all day, but now my nerve goes. I can’t go in there. Listen to the thousands of sharp squawking beaks in there, I say. Native Companion not unkindly offers to hold my hand, talk me through it. It is 100 degrees and I have pygmy-goat shit on my shoe and am almost crying with fear and embarrassment. I have to sit down on a green bench to collect myself. The noise of the Poultry Building is horrifying. I think this is what insanity must sound like. No wonder madmen clutch their heads. There’s a thin stink. Bits of feather float. … When I was eight, at the Champaign County Fair, I was pecked without provocation, flown at and pecked by a renegade fowl, savagely, just under the right eye.
The “fun” here is not so much what happens on the press tour or on carnie rides or at livestock shows, but rather how our narrator internalizes each situation. His downstate subjects accept a certain amount of discomfort for the sake of genuine excitement. They recover, ignore, laugh, brush off. Our narrator, on the other hand, has a harder time. Wallace flees, he frets, his stomach turns. Episode after dramatic episode — it’s a bit like channel surfing, the way he flits from one scene to another — causes him distress and alarm. Call it pandering to readers’ hunger for suffering, but his fragility adds a certain white-knuckled element to an otherwise ho-hum affair. And it’s when he’s at his most vulnerable that he stumbles on his sharpest epiphanies:
Not that it’s profound, but I’m struck … by the fact that these agricultural pros do not see their stock as pets or friends. They are just in the agribusiness of weight and meat. They are unconnected, even at the fair’s self-consciously special occasion of connection. And why not? — even at the fair their products continue to drool and smell and scream, and the work goes on. I can imagine what they think of us, cooing at the swine: we fairgoers don’t have to deal with the business of breeding and feeding our meat; our meat simply materializes at the corn-dog stand, allowing us to separate our healthy appetites from fur and screams and rolling eyes. We tourists get to indulge our tender animal rights feelings with our tummies full of bacon. I don’t know how keen these sullen farmers’ sense of irony is, but mine’s been honed East Coast keen, and I feel like a bit of an ass in the Swine Barn.
In his final paragraphs, Wallace posits a theory: The vast, monotonous Midwest generates in locals “the urge physically to commune, melt, become part of the crowd. To see something besides land and grass and corn and cable TV and your wife’s face.” There may be some truth to this — patronizing as it sounds. But if, as he suggests, “the real spectacle that draws us here is us,” then what keeps us reading feverishly to that last line is him.
Brent McDonald is a senior video journalist at the New York Times. Follow him at @docubrent. To read more of our “Why’s this so good?” series, go here.