I never picked up Infinite Jest, but I've read most of his non-fiction and his three short story collections. Reading Wallace, I'm continually amazed that such a gigantic intellect could emerge from the cornfields of Champagne, Illinois.
Though immensely blessed with a rare, powerhouse mind that functioned at the heights of logic and poetry, Wallace was also cursed (we can see this more clearly now) with major mental illness. Says the L.A. Times:
"In its obituary,
the New York Times spoke to Wallace's family. His father, James Donald
Wallace, noted that although the writer hadn't spoken publicly about
it, he'd long battled depression. 'Everything had been tried,' his
father told the paper, 'and he just couldn’t stand it anymore.'"
If you have time, I'd recommend reading this 2006 essay Wallace wrote about Roger Federer for the New York Times magazine: Roger Federer as Religious Experience. In the 3,000 words and 17 footnotes of the essay, Wallace renders an appreciation of athletic grace and beauty that strikes me as timeless and complete. (Hemingway took 350 pages writing about bull fighters in Death in the Afternoon to attempt the same effect, and failed.)
In the Federer essay, Wallace buries his poignant lede in the last paragraph of the last footnote:
One wouldn’t want
to make too much of it, or to pretend that it’s any sort of equitable
balance; that would be grotesque. But the truth is that whatever deity,
entity, energy, or random genetic flux produces sick children also
produced Roger Federer, and just look at him down there. Look at that.
The math I'm driving at here is simple: Federer's pure genius for tennis equals Wallace's pure genius for letters. That kind of firepower makes you tip your hat to the universe, gratefully, for the privilege of being alive to see it in action. Just look at him in there. Look at that.