David Foster Wallace and the Great New York State Fair


It would have been easy enough to write an essay of ridicule. That’s what state fairs, with their abundance of fried food and the overfed, carnies and hucksters, freak shows and 4-H-raised llamas lend themselves to most easily. But the heart of this assignment – to write an homage to David Foster Wallace, who in 1994 published his iconic “Ticket to the Fair” in Harper’s, and who hanged himself two years ago this month – poses a task weightier than merely satirizing the 12 days of New York State Fair that recently wrapped just outside of Syracuse.

As in any comedic tradition, we promise to make you smile before we make you sad. A tour-de-force of emotion, after the jump.

August 31, 4:15 p.m.

I am no dummy; I will not endure this trip alone. As DFW had his Native Companion, I have my Faithful Escort – a photographer, conveniently enough, who during our sojourn will risk life and limb to consume multiple fried Snickers bars and elephant ears, ferry us through the Haunted House, navigate a real-life sighting of the chupacabra, and entreat me to ride the Ferris Wheel.

Of course, we must first bicker about where to park. Then we hoof it a half-mile to the fair – which is, fittingly enough, on the other side of both interstate and railroad track – before arriving at our nirvana.

Photo credit: Joe Lingeman

5:07 p.m.

Sensory overload begins with the realization that, by way of loudspeakers that trumpet throughout the fairgrounds, a baritone-voiced, omniscient narrator will perpetually intone the events and activities one might see and do. Tonight there is a Beatles cover band, a Beatles sand castle being built, a clog dance, a Native American traditional dance, girls jumping horses in a hockey arena filled with dirt – to say nothing of the International Pavilion that the audience-relations lady assures us is a “don’t-miss,” the grange building, and the blue-ribbon-winning cocks and swine. Good options, all, but first we must see the dairy products barn.

Photo credit: Joe Lingeman

5:14 p.m.

Unless you count humans, there are no live animals here – only two-dimensional cartoon cows with flirtatious-looking eyelashes. Perhaps in some nod to kashrut (this is the dairy barn, after all), the meat area is safely ensconced in its own half of the building, where hot beef sundaes are for sale and 20-something girls busy about with hunks of sausage large enough to make you blush.

Faithful Escort removes his camera lens. “Would you like a beef ambassador in your photo?” one of the girls asks, posing before he can answer.

We are not amused. But the beef ambassador will turn out to be a treat, a veritable nun, compared with the girls we meet later at the beer tent, who wear T-shirts with the necks cut out to reveal their cleavage and handwritten tags proclaiming cutesy “boy” nicknames like E.J., Lexie, and Lo.

Photo credit: Joe Lingeman

5:36 p.m.

We amble over to the butter sculpture, rotating in a hexagonal Plexiglas vitrine on what appears to be an enormous wheel of camembert – but what’s really, of course, butter. Dairyville 2020 is meant to represent the “farm of the future,” but with its absence of chain stores and plethora of local establishments (“Say Cheese Photography,” “Udder Value Market,”) it looks more like an upstate New York town of the past.

What distinguishes this piece from your typical 800-pound butter sculpture of the pastoral is the central building, which on further investigation reveals itself to be an anaerobic digester. In other words, the Eiffel Tower-like-structure-with-hoofs is a power line that runs on cow dung. In fact, the entire town is “sustainable,” powered only by methane and manure.

Ten seconds after digesting this information, Faithful Escort announces that it is time to eat.

Photo credit: Joe Lingeman

5:57 p.m.

The Venice Biennale it isn’t, but if the decorative posters are any indication, a wealth of nations is on display at the International Pavilion: Antarctica (penguin, girl with snow); Tahiti or Fiji (island paradise); China; Egypt; France; second island paradise that is possibly Hawaii (parrot, ocean). The food vendors – Grandma’s Kitchen, Italian Corner, Papa’s Pizza – don’t appear to correspond.

I order vegetable lasagna, which distinguishes itself as vegetable only by virtue of its conspicuous absence of meat. My side is a slice of Wonder Bread served on a napkin, along with a ready-to-eat package of Land O’ Lakes butter (brands headquartered in Texas and Minnesota, respectively). Lo, the bounty of New York State!

One added bonus of eating inside: we can’t actually smell the animals we’re eating. Faithful Escort points out that this helps him to further relish his ginormous pork sausage in blissful ignorance of the piggies on view next door.

Photo credit: Joe Lingeman

7:08 p.m.

We head over to Iroquois Indian Nation, full of beer and ready to carouse.

The air is quiet and cooler here, landscaping is grass and trees rather than pavement and hay, and Big Brother’s omnipresent directives (“How about a visit to the Petits Pools Extreme Canines?”) are out of earshot. The dancers, clad in traditional garb (headdresses, moccasins), are spellbinding, dancing their hearts out to a sparse crowd. When a father and his four-year-old son take the stage, circling each other, Faithful Escort tears up. He won’t take any photographs here. We won’t speak of it until later, but we sense the specters of the wronged, whom, we feel, are shaming us for our exuberant mocking, our appetite for irony.

Later, and with little prompting, a woman who has been coming to the fair for 30 years will tell me her life story: an alcoholic father; a mother who cleaned homes for white people; school kids who called her “dirty Indian”; her determination, despite her choice of an alcoholic husband, not to repeat her mother’s mistakes.

8:30 p.m.

Although it’s not prime time to see the animals – they are weary from long days earning blue ribbons – we hightail it to the sheep anyway. Some wear hoods, only eyes and legs visible, as if they are the familiars belonging to grand dukes of the KKK. Others gobble hay, noisily slurp water, bleat, or stare morosely into the whirring box fans wired to each pen. A small few nuzzle Faithful Escort’s hand, which he dangles dangerously, like a carrot, in the vicinity of each muzzle – despite signs exhorting visitors not to do this, because “animals may bite!”

In the goat, llama, and swine barn, nursing pigs seem to vibrate with the effort of feeding their piglets; a 4-H mom with frosted hair marches her charges from pen to pen, demanding, “What’s wrong with this picture?”; two peach-colored pigs wag their curlicued tails in seeming expressions of pleasure, as they root through slop; a poster explains how to make sense of the notches in the pigs’ ears, which correspond to their litters, and another diagrams the tastiest bits that will go to market. We pledge vegetarianism to one another; Jonathan Safran Foer and his wife, Nicole Krauss, á la the former’s Eating Animals, are invoked; and we round out the night gawking at guinea pigs, cavies, and enormous rabbits, which eye us warily through their cages – and which, we congratulate ourselves, do not often appear in our diets.

Photos: Joe Lingeman

10:55 p.m.

On the way home, we are expressionless, bovine. We wonder: perhaps it is Bieber Fever? (The singer is slated to perform at the fair tomorrow.)

The smell of hay and barns, old oil, fried potatoes, and manure clings to our clothes, fingers, and hair. We have – as the advertisements for the Great New York State Fair promised – taken part of the fair home with us, where it will live on forever – or at least until someone gets around to doing the wash.

We think about DFW, his disgust with, and appreciation for, human folly, neatly summed up in the last sentence of his essay: “The real spectacle that draws us here is us.” We think about how he couldn’t make it to see Obama get elected. We feel a special flavor of loneliness as we drive through the dark night, separated from the other fair-goers by miles of interstate, and a growing longing for a man we didn’t know in our hearts.

Photo credit: Joe Lingeman