A Lesson from Donald W. Gately on Making the Hard Choice

David Foster Wallace’s gigantic novel Infinite Jest is centrally about America’s disastrous addiction to pleasure. The novel is a cacophonous and beautiful assessment of American values: where are we going? why are we going there? and are we really going anywhere at all? That the work is genius and complicated and splendid is indisputable, but one particularly splendid instrument Wallace uses in the novel, one of its best and most moving parts, one of the best characters ever thought into fictional existence, is Donald W. Gately, 29, chief counsellor at the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, ex-burglar, ex-narcotic-addict, and one of the novel’s main protagonists. Gately makes Infinite Jest optimistic—you have to dig, really dig to find it, the optimism in the sad and lonely and creepily-prophetic novel, but it’s there: Gately is the model, the paradigm, what Wallace strives for and suggest we strive for, a man with simple and aware and melancholy honesty with himself and the world.

We mainly see Gately in one setting, a very important one: the Boston, MA’s Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (redundancy sic.) The House, just down the hill from the Enfield Tennis Academy which is arguably the second-most important setting in the novel, is a halfway house for recovering addicts, acting as a sanctuary from the harsh world (and often from the law) for those who live there, as a moronic and dull and repetitive prison for those who live there and don’t want to, and as a fascinating bacteria-like cultivation of various substance-abusers in the novel. It’s an amalgamation of ex-coke-addicts, ex-alcoholics, ex-etcetera’s, which leaves the House chaotic and tense and constantly neurotic. When the novel begins, Gately is serving as counsellor of the House, working the night shift and a janitorial job at a homeless shelter where he has to, seriously, clean up shit.1 Gately arrived at the House roughly fourteen months prior and has been totally, painfully sober since.

One of Gately’s main struggles and one of the main motifs of the novel is the system, the actual mechanics of the largely cultish Alcoholics Anonymous2 program. Wallace spends a lot of time explaining, through Gately, AA clichés, their repetitiveness, shallowness, simplicity, cheesiness. Mantras like ‘Here But For The Grace Of God,’ ‘The truth will set you free, but not until it’s finished with you,’ ‘My worst day sober is better than my best day drinking,’ ‘Have an attitude of gratitude,’ etc., and the stages of the system—all proper nouns, of course—like ‘Coming In’ and being ‘in Denial’ and, as Wallace says in footnote 132, “The word Group in AA Group is always capitalized because Boston AA places enormous emphasis on joining a Group and identifying yourself as a member of this larger thing, the Group. Likewise caps in like Commitment, Giving It Away, and c.,”—all of these clichés Gately has an enormously difficult time accepting, blindly believing in, trusting his life and sobriety in. He’s a practical guy, and it’s very hard for him to dedicate himself to this seemingly impossible and overly-simple system.

But it works. In his article on the mechanics of Gately’s character from a mental health perspective, Allan Wood writes:

When he first Came In, Gately dedicated himself to “this unromantic, unhip, cliched AA thing”, but had no clue how “corny slogans and saccharin grins” and “the limpest sort of dickless pap” could actually make him forget about Substances and remove his overwhelming desire for them. And then maybe four months in, when he out of the blue realized he had not thought of oral narcotics or even “a cold foamer” for several days, Gately ‘hadn’t felt so much grateful or joyful as just plain shocked. The idea that AA might actually somehow work unnerved him. He suspected some sort of trap’ (qtd. in Life And How To Live It).

And that’s where Gately’s nobility lies, I think, in his working day in, day out, trusting the honesty and simplicity of the system, trusting his elders,3 following the rules, stoically, humbly. He realizes that he has a choice between doing it, devoting himself to AA, or falling back in and presumably eventually dying, and it’s a hard choice, believe it or not, in an addict’s mind. The addicted human brain sans-substance is so insectile and impulsive, and is boiled down by said addiction to the more simple and primitive human state, one completely controlled by the substance, like a rat on cocaine, constantly getting high, crashing down, going back for more, living every day for the substance, finding it, finding the money for it, through whatever means, ingesting it, and ingesting it, and ingesting it, and anything that comes between the ingester and the ingestion must be removed one way or the other.

And that’s why it’s such an amazing feat, for Gately, for any addict, to hit rock bottom and conquer his addiction the hard way. It is so difficult for Americans to take the hard way. In any addiction, whether drugs, alcohol, sex—geez, television, consumerism, Americans4 seem to have a really impossible time conquering it. Whether an inevitable cultural trend, a softening of the mind and willpower, a technologically advanced and easier lifestyle, I don’t know, but the normalcy of this weakness is growing, and Gately unfortunately is a representative of the few.

Admittedly, most Americans do not share the intensity, drug-wise, of Gately’s addiction. He was a frequent ingester of Dilaudids, a form of opium two to ten times the strength of morphine. The Addiction Center says the drug is “one of the more powerful synthetic narcotics in the opioid class of drugs and an addiction to Dilaudid can rapidly develop through continued use…It is not uncommon for Dilaudid abuse to lead to criminal activities in their search to get more of the drug” (Dilaudid Addiction and Abuse). That last bit is a very important part of Gately’s past, when he would burgle houses for drug money. Wallace writes:

But he was a gifted burglar, when he burgled — though the size of a young dinosaur, with a massive and almost perfectly square head he used to amuse his friends when drunk by letting them open and close elevator doors on, he was, at his professional zenith, smart, sneaky, quiet, quick, possessed of good taste and reliable transportation — with a kind of ferocious jolliness in his attitude toward his livelihood (60).

This substantially taints Gately’s nobility and morality as a character, and Wallace structures his development so that this exposition comes first, and we gradually see how Gately has progressed and grown bigger than his substance, so we still end up admiring him in spite. But when he details Gately’s burglary, we are both frustrated with the early Gately and sympathetic with how truly awful the whole situation turns out. Upon one catastrophic burglary, Gately accidentally kills5 Guillaume DuPlessis, a significant leader in the anti-O.N.A.N. Organizer north of the Great Concavity,6 during a botched robbery, which is a grotesque scene that has to do with gagging the Québecer and really very unfortunate nasal congestion and torn rib ligaments, all very Wallacean and sick and far too detailed for the gentle-stomached.

And so post-botched-robbery Gately ends up in the House to avoid jail. He’s at rock bottom. He finds the house to be disgusting and unnerving and full of absolute freaks who have no sense of pride, personal space, or really any sense that there is anyone else in the world besides them, a common trait among addicts, it turns out. Except the people aren’t necessarily the most characterizing parts of the house, Spencer Baum argues, but the lessons Gately learned there:

Ennet House is, arguably, the most important location in Infinite Jest, so when it comes time to introduce it in the reader’s mind, Wallace takes his time, allowing himself multiple pages to introduce the setting…Wallace gives the reader a moving and beautiful list of the things one learns while living there…: “If, by the virtue of charity or the circumstance of desperation, you ever chance to spend a little time around a substance-recovery halfway facility like Enfield, MA’s state-funded Ennet House, you will acquire many exotic new facts. You will find out that once MA’s Department of Social Services has taken a mother’s children away for any period of time, they can always take them away again, D.S.S., like at will, empowered by nothing more than a certain signature-stamped form. I.e. once deemed Unfit — no matter why or when, or what’s transpired in the meantime — there’s nothing a mother can do…That sometimes human beings have to just sit in one place and, like, hurt. That you will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do. That there is such a thing as raw, unalloyed, agendaless kindness. That it is possible to fall asleep during an anxiety attack.” (qtd. in Writing Lesson).

This is where we abide with Gately for a long time as he lives in the House and manages his daily charges, putting his head down and continuing on. He has no idea what the future holds and has major doubts that it holds anything at all. He’s a complicated character in his despair and ultimate pessimism, but the very fact that he lives on, substance-free, admittedly, yes, with a lot of fear, but without pride or laziness or rat-on-cocaine-type daily life, all the pieces of modern American life, that is what is optimistic, if not Gately himself. He is the one character who learns what to say yes and no to. Wallace holds him up as the ideal, although not an incredibly happy, colorful, bright, spirited man, he lives life honestly, without depending on booze or drugs or television or sugary, vacuously constant pleasure to make life something else. He can look life straight in the eye and assess it truthfully.

And so, sweetly vulnerable Gately leaves us with his fate in question. He ends up in the hospital nursing a gunshot wound and the last we hear of him is his final struggle, his supremum certamen, to communicate to the doctors that he is a drug addict and to not, under any circumstances, even if he begs them to, put pain-killers in his IV bag. Wallace ends the novel with a dream of unconscious-hospital-Gately’s, of which Fiction Advocate makes the analysis:

The book ends with Don Gately on a beach after a massively unpleasant experience with his old crew and some Dilaudids…If this isn’t rock bottom, it’s hard to imagine any experience tough enough to chip down to lower level of shittiness than watching your friend get his eyes sewn open while you lay in a puddle of piss and M&M dye listening to Linda McCartney vocal tracks…Of course, Gately is actually in his hospital bed dreaming of all this…I have wondered (but found no firm supporting evidence) whether Gately was given painkillers in the hospital against his uncommunicative will. On the one hand, it would explain why he dreams of taking massive doses of substances. On the other hand, if reintroducing Dilaudid into his system sends him straight back to memories of his rock bottom, let’s hope it means he won’t be getting back on the horse when he wakes up (The Infinite Jest Liveblog).

A toughly-swallowed pill with a character we’ve invested so much hope in. On this singular section of Gately’s story rests the significance of his entire role in the book, all of his meaning, whether he turns rat-like and falls back in to the deep, dark hole, whether that reflects absolute and total despair in the real future in America. And it leaves us questioning, if he did fall back in, whether he’ll ever be able to brave it back out again. Or if he’d even have any strength or desire left to get back out. But a little hope lies in the back of our minds as we think of our favorite square-headed shit-cleaner curled in the floor in the numbing and seizing and skull-shattering pain of withdrawal, focusing on trying to abide in the pain that each passing second brings, gritting his teeth, and making the hard choice.