6 November Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. It is the annual meet between E.T.A. and the Port Washington Tennis Academy, hosted at P.W.T.A. in Long Island as it is every year. Players from the losing school have to sing a silly song during the end-of-meet supper, and the headmasters have to partake in an “even more embarrassing tradition,” though no one knows what it is. Last year E.T.A. lost, but this was before the school gained John Wayne, who is from Quebec and was the top ranked player in Canada at the age of 16. He is now #2 in the U.S.T.A., only a couple of points behind #1, who is believed to be “hiding out” from him.
This passage illustrates the mix between silliness and seriousness that characterizes the junior tennis world. As the second part of the passage shows, rankings are taken extremely seriously; E.T.A.’s acquisition of John Wayne recalls the buying of players by professional teams. At the same time, the silly song mentioned at the beginning of the passage is a reminder that the players are still schoolchildren.
Hal, meanwhile, who was ranked #43 in the U.S.T.A., has undergone a “quantumish competitive plateau-hop” and is now ranked #4. Wayne begins to play; his game has “a kind of automatic beauty.” He falls backwards at one point and his body makes a dramatic sound hitting the tarp, but he is okay and returns to the match immediately. His game is “less alive than undead.” At E.T.A., he spends most of his time alone. No one knows how he feels about the fact that his Canadian citizenship has been revoked. His “undead” disposition will likely make him a cool, effective, businesslike professional tennis player.
Wayne is the best junior player depicted in the novel, and it is thus significant that his playing style is described as “automatic” and “undead.” This supports the earlier passage about robotic repetition being the key to athletic success. Yet once again, passion and sensitivity play a role in athletic success for many people.
Pemulis has been vomiting from nerves before his match. He needs to win if he’s going to make the traveling list for WhataBurger. Most E.T.A. students receive corporate sponsorship in the form of gifts (they are not permitted to receive money). Wayne is sponsored by Dunlop and Adidas, and Hal by Dunlop, Nike, and Air Stirrup (a brace company). Teddy Schacht has stopped caring about winning, and ever since has started playing better tennis. He glances up at Wayne’s match and, although he is too far away to see the score, he can tell that Wayne is decimating his opponent.
The corporate sponsorship rule means that E.T.A. students resemble (a slightly less ridiculous version of) the years in the novel. Brands sponsoring high school teams (although not individual players) is actually something that happens in reality, again showing that the supposedly exaggerated version of the world presented in Infinite Jest is actually not very different from real life.
Coach Schtitt’s attitude to success at tennis is that in order to succeed, one must “both care a great deal about it and also not care about it at all.” Wayne and Hal’s games are both at the point of “carnage.” All the adults in the audience wear the kind of tennis outfits that indicate that the wearer does not actually play tennis.
Coach Schtitt’s mantra about success in tennis is typical of the genre of wisdom that may have profound meaning, or may mean nothing at all.
Both Pat Montesian and Don Gately’s AA sponsor say that Gately should take a lesson in “patience and tolerance” from Geoffrey Day, a new resident at Ennet House. During morning meditation, Day talks about how he practices gratitude and accepts the truth of various clichés. He has been at Ennet House for six days, having just detoxed from his red wine and Quaalude addiction. He is a professor at a junior college in Medford and has spent the past few years “in and out of a blackout.”
Day’s fondness for clichés links this passage back to the previous one featuring Coach Schtitt’s questionable wisdom about tennis. This in turn highlights the similarity between athletic training and drug and alcohol recovery. In both cases, cliché wisdom can be useful and profound—or it can be nothing more than irritating nonsense.
Gately has witnessed dozens of people enter Ennet House only to relapse, end up in prison, or die. He could tell Day that the clichés are easy to believe but “hard to actually do.” Gately has been “Substance-free” for 421 days. One resident, Burt F. Smith, is attempting sobriety for about the 50th time. Gately, who has been working at Ennet House as a residential staffer for four months, is suspicious of another resident, Charlotte Treat, and her obsession with embroidery, considering how it revolves around needles.
Gately’s suspicion of Charlotte Treat’s embroidery hobby might seem ridiculous, but this is the kind of vigilance that is needed when running a recovery program. It is not so much that Charlotte is somehow considering relapsing via embroidery, but rather that the visual, tactile, and muscle memory associated with addiction is so strong she might not be able to overcome it.
Gately has been taking mental notes on all the residents. Emil Minty is a punk heroin addict who has been homeless since the age of 16. Bruce Green, who has the MILDRED BONK tattoo, has even worse insomnia than the average Ennet House resident. Randy Lenz is a “seedily handsome” low-level cocaine dealer. Charlotte Treat is a former sex worker who is now exceptionally “prim.” Gately himself is 29; before he became an AA devotee, his Substance of choice was oral narcotics. Today Pat is interviewing three potential new residents. Time passes slowly and painfully in Ennet House. Lenz asks Day the time, and this provokes a squabble between them. Gately farts.
Recovery brings together people from wildly different walks of life. Not only this, but each resident has an intense, colorful history that may not be obvious based on their current behavior. Indeed, several residents desperately want to distance themselves from their past behavior, such as Charlotte. The detail of Green’s MILDRED BONK tattoo serves as a reminder that no matter how hard we try, we cannot ever truly escape our pasts.
The E.T.A. players make a triumphant return from P.W.T.A., having watched their opponents sing the silly song. As usual, Schtitt does not ride in the bus with the students back to E.T.A., but instead takes his own mysterious private route. In the bus, someone passes round a leaflet offering a kingdom to the person who “could pull Keith Freer out of Bernadette Longley.” Freer and Longley had been discovered having sex under an Adidas blanket during an E.T.A. bus trip back in September. Now, Longley’s doubles partner says that it’s a shame someone on the bus is “so immature.”
Despite their talents and the unusually intense pressures they face, E.T.A. students are in a way still just ordinary adolescents. Furthermore, life inside an institution where the staff often seem to turn a blind eye to misbehavior allows them to explore sex, drugs, and other illicit activities rather freely.
Orin left the world of competitive tennis when Hal was 9 and Mario 10. As a tennis player, Orin peaked at 13. Still, he had good grades and, considering that “mediocrity is relative” when it comes to junior tennis, he received several good offers from colleges. He chose to attend Boston University, which is not a strong school for tennis. Avril helped him make the decision, believing it was good for him to leave home but important that he be able to come back easily. With Avril and Uncle Charles’s help, Orin agreed to play for B.U.’s tennis team and secured a full ride with added benefits.
Thanks to attending the elite, high-intensity program at E.T.A. and the support of his family, Orin is able to attend college on a tennis scholarship despite his relative lack of talent. Indeed, the extent to which this was more Avril’s decision than Orin’s is revealed by the fact that she wanted him to attend B.U., a school very near to her in Enfield. Again, Avril is shown to be a somewhat suffocating presence in her children’s lives.
On April 1 of Orin’s senior year of college (Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar), James killed himself. Later, in a Convocation address to E.T.A., Uncle Charles explained that it would have been absurd for Avril to become Headmistress on top of her many other responsibilities, not to mention her grief. Earlier in his college career, Orin had decided not to play competitive tennis at B.U. after all, and instead, during his freshman year, made the “unlikely” switch to competitive football. This was because he’d developed an enormous crush on a sophomore baton-twirler. Although Orin had slept with many girls, he’d never felt like this before.
Considering that Orin has been portrayed as a sex addict, it is significant that he decided to switch sports to football all because of the crush he developed on a baton-twirler. Recall also that Orin’s sex addiction is blamed on his overly-intense relationship with his mother. Tennis was his connection to his home and family, but thanks to his crush on the baton twirler he was able to sever this connection and break out on his own.
Orin and his doubles partner nicknamed this girl P.G.O.A.T., or Prettiest Girl Of All Time. She was so beautiful that she was “almost universally shunned,” because even the most confident guys could not bring themselves to talk to her. (It is hinted here that the girl is Joelle.) Orin wanted to switch to football to be closer to her, a decision that greatly upset the B.U. tennis coach. Yet his tryouts for the football team were “too pathetic to describe.” However, just as he was walking glumly away there was a dramatic accident involving the team’s best defensive tackle and the punter, in which all the punter’s bones were broken.
This passage is a great example of the way that the world of the novel is exaggerated in surreal ways. For example, the detail that Joelle is so beautiful that she is “almost universally shunned” makes her beauty seem mythic or supernatural. Meanwhile, the idea that Orin could transfer to the varsity football team is ludicrous—until the horrifying yet fairy tale-like twist of the punter breaking all of his bones.
While everyone’s attention was focused on the collision, Orin kicked the football from where it had landed near him back toward them. He had never kicked a football before, but it turned out that he had an extraordinary talent for it, and he made the team after all. Orin soon developed a 69 yard-per-kick average, and his full ride scholarship was renewed for football. Within four weeks his talent at football far exceeded any talent he’d had for tennis. Then, during a Columbus Day Major Sport event, Joelle asked him to autograph a football for her father. By the end of Orin’s freshman fall, they were living together in an East Cambridge co-op.
This happy-ever-after turn in the narrative resembles a corny movie. This is particularly true of the sudden, dramatic realization that Orin has a profound natural talent for kicking a football, and Joelle’s subsequent pursuit of him (which occurs seemingly on the basis of that talent). Sudden twists in good fortune also stand out in a novel that is otherwise so preoccupied with the depressing, tragic, and disturbing nature of reality.
That year, Joelle spent Thanksgiving with Orin’s family and Orin spent Christmas with hers in Kentucky. On New Year’s Eve, Orin watched Joelle take “very small amounts” of cocaine (which he himself declined). Joelle was a “film fanatic” and Film/Cartridge major. Via Orin she developed an enthusiasm for art films and soon after began acting in James’s productions. In her junior year, she skillfully films Orin playing a football game.
Although Joelle was theoretically a way for Orin to escape the clutches of his family by quitting his tennis career, her interest in film and relationship with James mean that she instead brings Orin closer to his family again.