§22 is one of the most powerful sections of The Pale King, providing an account of the narrator’s conversion from a listless burnout to a dedicated IRS agent. Crucial to this process is his accidental attendance of a review session for an advanced tax class, where the professor gives a lecture about the heroic nature of the accounting profession that has been much-quoted in reviews. The purpose of this post is to point out something that bothered me consistently about this chapter, namely its frequent inaccuracies in its references to Chicago. Whether these inaccuracies are DFW’s or the narrator’s (i.e., purposeful) is not completely clear to me, but I am inclined to think they are purposeful and will explain why after listing the primary inaccuracies I found.
- I do not think that the professor is actually, as the narrator claims, a Jesuit. This is an area where the reviewers tend to take the narrator’s word for it, even though he expresses doubt on this matter. In point of fact, DePaul University, though a Catholic institution, is not Jesuit but Vincentian, and my understanding is that the majority of priest-professors would belong to the sponsoring order — particularly given the fact that Chicago also has a Jesuit university, namely Loyola. Even if the regular professor was in fact a Jesuit, however, it seems likely (though not certain) to me that the teacher who gives the stirring lecture, a substitute for the regular professor, is not a priest, given that he wears non-clerical garb. (Priests and other religious did loosen up their standards of dress after Vatican II, but the lecturer does not strike me as a “spirit of Vatican II” type of guy.) It is likely that the narrator is referring to the regular professor as a Jesuit simply due to the strong association between Jesuits and education, and his only reason for thinking the substitute must also be is some vague sense that the professor and his substitute must be “the same thing.”
- His account of the public transit system does not seem to match up to reality. First, he refers to the commuter trains from the suburbs as “CTA” trains, but the CTA has never been in charge of that part of the public transit system. Second, there is not and never has been a CTA station by the name of “Washington Square.” Since the station where the father has his accident is in the subway, he could either be referring to the Clark and Divsion or Chicago and State stops in the Red Line subway, both of which are located near Washington Square Park.
- In neither case does it seem to me that the stop in question would be a natural transfer point from the commuter rail system — the closest extant commuter rail stop is at Armitage and Clybourn, over a mile from either stop. Given that he characterizes their trip as aiming toward the Art Institute gift shop, it is possible that they did get off at Armitage and Clybourn and caught the Red Line at North and Clybourn, rather than going all the way to Union Station or Ogilvie — in fact, such a route would be very practical as it would require less backtracking if they had shopping to do near this supposed “Washington Square” stop (I leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out why this is the case, as I am starting to feel a little bit like a dork here). Such an efficient trip seems characteristic of the father, a public transit devotee and non-driver like myself.
- When he goes to the IRS recruitment office on Taylor St., he claims that it is fortunate that the “Kennedy Expressway” blocks the view of the sign he and his roommate used to determine whether or not to do their homework. In point of fact, I-90/I-94 is called the Dan Ryan Expressway at that location (i.e., south of the Circle Interchange).
Why do I think these errors are purposeful? I believe they are the kind of errors someone like the narrator in his burnout phase would make. He calls the station based on a landmark he remembers as nearby rather than by its actual name, for instance, and he calls the expressway by the name it carries on the north side of town (as that is the part he would be more likely to know, living as he did in the northwest suburb of Libertyville). He includes a lot of detail because that’s the kind of person he has become, but he wasn’t the kind of person at the time who would actually have paid attention to those details. The attempt to include all the detail attest to the conversion itself, and the errors attest to how different he previously was.