The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

The Pale King
By David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown; 560 pp; $27.99


On Apr. 15, IRS agents get to be the heroes. In addition to being tax day, the 15th marks the publication of The Pale King, David Foster Wallace's posthumous novel celebrating the lives of Internal Revenue Service workers. Could The Pale King do for 1980s IRS employees in Peoria what Mad Men did for 1960s copywriters in Manhattan?

Sadly, it won't. The problem is that Wallace defines heroism a little differently than television does. In the Knute Rockne-like speech that inspires one character to join "the Service," a professor says, "Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is." This isn't exactly the same as getting drunk and sleeping with your secretary, but Wallace's premise is that in this era of micro-attention spans, there's a great dividend in giving one's full attention to something—even obscure tax laws. And on Apr. 15, a bunch of ordinary heroes staring at page after page of returns will keep those words alive. Their only hope is that Jon Hamm plays them in the adaptation.

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