The Pale King – Section 1: Will it Play in Peoria?

The Pale King opens with a prose poem-y thing originally published in Triquarterly in 2002 under the title “Peoria (4)”. (I’m not sure why this previous publication is not credited on the copyright page of TPK. I guess TriQ is just not on the same level as the New Yorker.) Supposedly, one of the alternate titles of The Pale King was “What is Peoria For?” Maybe that “(4)” is Wallace’s sly way of getting us to ask What is Peoria (4)? Well, what is this thing? Has Wallace ever written anything like this before? It’s a curious opening to a novel about the IRS. It seemed like a weird thing for DFW to publish way back in 2002 (frankly, it was a bit of a disappointment. When one is expecting a new DFW story in a literary magazine and is confronted with a short, but plentiful description of a field in Peoria, IL, a natural response might be What is this?). Really, though, the opening was Pietsch’s call:

“Ultimately there were chapters that could have gone anywhere,” he says. “Like the first chapter — that was not the first chapter. It was just a beautiful love letter to an Illinois cornfield in fallow time. I don’t know if he intended it as an opening, but it just felt like a beautiful way into this novel.”

Wallace mentions Peoria a lot in his writing. He mentions it in one of the first stories he ever wrote: “The Enema Bandit and the Cosmic Buzzer.” The story has never been published anywhere (yet) {he wrote it as an undergrad at Amherst}, but it resides in the Wallace archive at the Ransom Center (container 27.9). The enema bandit (probably a reference to Frank Zappa’s song “The Illinois Enema Bandit“) is called “The Purging Scourge of Peoria.” [Zappa’s bandit is supposedly from Bloomington, IL. Peoria and Bloomington (where Wallace lived for a long time) are only 60 miles apart.]

Peoria is somewhat well-known for being the standard-bearer of Midwestern values or at least middle-American demographics. The famous phrase “Will it play in Peoria?” refers to the idea that for something to be mainstream in the U.S., it needs to succeed in somewhere as “average” or “common” as Peoria. So, in reality, Peoria is not home to an IRS Regional Examination Center—it is America’s Test Market. And I feel like that Harry Potter and Twilight and Dean Koonz play well in Peoria, but that The Pale King is not the sort of novel or book or entertainment that would  likely appeal to mainstream America. And yet. And yet… The Pale King is a bestseller. It reached up to #4 on Amazon’s list of the top 100 books and will likely debut high on the New York Times hardcover fiction list. It does appeal to many, many people who take reading seriously and that mysterious “general reader” who still, in fact, reads for pleasure. But the scale is way different and far fewer people will buy The Pale King than will see The Hangover 2 or watch American Idol or buy whatever Stephanie Meyer writes next, so therefore it is a little easier to get on the NY Times Bestseller Hardcover Fiction list than it is to win the weekend box office or set Nielsen ratings records (and it helps when the publisher keeps the ebook release date 4/15, driving folks to cancel their kindle orders and buy the hardcover two weeks early instead).

The local press in Peoria has acknowledged the book at least once: this blog entry by Dave Haney on

I actually did not know the book or name until I ended up in one of Wallace’s classes in 1998 or 1999 at Illinois State University. It was a grammar for writers class. You kind of suspect something is different about a professor who on the first day (and many after) arrives in sweatpants cut into shorts; who wears a well-fitted white T-shirt on a not-so-well fit torso; who wore a bandana and rarely seemed to shave; and who spit chewing tobacco into a styrofoam cup he brought along.

He gave the class grammar handouts he said were the same his mother used for English classes she taught to prisoners.

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