Seeing Ghosts

Flipping through old photo albums and keepsakes doesn’t always bring on warm nostalgia; it can also trigger something of an identity crisis. (How did I ever think stirrup pants were a good idea?) Here, James Ireland Baker reflects on how one afternoon in a dusty attic changed the way he viewed himself.

  • James Ireland Baker

In 1987 I was a disaffected 23-year-old college dropout living in a dingy Minneapolis boarding house, having just finished writing a novel that I chose to call (forgive me) Hawaiian Baby Woodrose. The novel was, not surprisingly, about a disaffected 23-year-old college dropout living in a dingy Minneapolis boarding house.

It was not very good. In fact, it was terrible. But a lovely newfound friend of mine read it, charitably said that she liked it, and suggested I send it to her ex-boyfriend, a writer named David Foster Wallace. I had never heard of the guy—he was not the literary icon he has since become—but he had, at 25, just published his first novel, The Broom of the System. David’s agent, my friend said, was “always looking for new clients,” and naturally I wanted to become one. So I walked from my boarding house to mail my manuscript and buy Wallace’s novel at a nearby bookstore.

Honestly, I didn’t like the book. David, however, could not have been kinder. A week after I sent him my effort, he wrote me a six-page, single-spaced critique. He had clearly paid close and generous attention to the work of a rank amateur, letting me know that he thought I had talent but that the book wasn’t all that it could or should have been. The one line that I remember (it has stuck with me all these years) was “You clearly have a very sophisticated sense of structure.”

Later I became a magazine editor, in part because of this quality. But I didn’t achieve the lifelong goal of becoming a novelist until recently, when a publisher bought my “first” novel (really, it was more like my 10th). In the maelstrom of anxiety that has marked the countdown to the book’s publication, I remembered that letter from David Foster Wallace. And, one dull afternoon last April, I climbed the ladder to the attic of my home in Westchester County, New York, and tried to find it.

I didn't. What I found instead were files upon files of other letters, manuscripts, notebooks, diaries, photos, tax returns, invitations to long defunct nightclubs, and bright lipstick pucker-prints on bar napkins. I sat on the warm attic boards that smelled the way only warm attic boards can smell—as distinct as the smell of wet sidewalks after rain—and paged through the many faded papers from my past.

I discovered letters from friends and family dating back to the late 1980s, when I uprooted myself and moved (with no degree, no job, no contacts, and only $250 in cash) from Minnesota to Manhattan. What struck me was the fact that I remembered very few of the people involved. The letters were like bulletins from a life I no longer remembered, sent to a person who no longer exists. (“The past is a foreign country,” the British novelist L. P. Hartley once wrote. “They do things differently there.”)

Here, for instance, was an unsigned letter labeled FIRST LETTER TO JIM on pulpy paper, its dot-matrix type apologizing for not liking On the Road and wondering—vis-à-vis Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation—what generation we belonged to. “The Less Than Zero generation?” this now forgotten writer asked. “I don’t know. I haven’t read it yet.”