In Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Wallace examines dozens of human tendencies or compulsions that produce emotional pain or confusion. The one-sided interview format personifies these issues, making them not only easier to read but also more entertaining than otherwise. One of his short stories, however, “The Devil Is A Busy Man,” contains no explicit emotional or sexual dysfunction, yet exposes just as much about human nature as the longer interviews. Here DFW riffs at once on human cynicism and on the nature of family relationships using the voice of a young child.
On some level, we as readers already know that people are often, if not always, skeptical about anything that’s being given away without compensation. Everyone loves free stuff, but everyone is also suspicious. This suspicion and cynicism about giveaways, even with charitable intentions, has ingrained itself into modern capitalistic culture. There is no free lunch. That’s why potential customers would act curiously around the narrator. “They’d shake their head and talk to their Mrs. and dither around and about drive Daddy nuts because all he wanted was to give an old tiller away for nothing and get it out of the drive and here it was taking him all this time jickjacking around with these folks to get them to take it” (BIWHM 70). When the father changes his ads to include a price, even a dirt-cheap one, the general consumer response shifts. “Where’d you get it at what’s the matter with it how come you want shed of it so bad” (70), becomes “Tickled to death to get an old harrow for next to nothing” (71). Next to nothing is far more attractive than nothing. Adding monetary value to something worth nothing makes it way easier to get rid of than instead relying on the charitable spirit of the seller. The father only figured this out due to frustration, but that makes the principle no less true. The logic is basic, as the consumer is always aware of the seller’s motivation, but Wallace calls to attention the cynicism necessary for this to become the dominant normative trend. Using a child’s traditionally innocent point of view also helps to emphasize this contrast. This notion may influence the title, but likely there’s more to it than I can figure out. Any ideas as to the title’s meaning?
The narrative also illustrates some of the dynamic of familial relationships. It is immediately apparent that the father and child are close, even if their daily interactions are gritty and at times profanity laced. The child has even adopted some of the nuances of his father’s speech, like the cursing and probably “jickjacking” and “some fool price” (70). When people show up to buy the father’s junk, the child notices, “Their faces was different and their wife’s faces in the truck, fine and showing teeth and him with an arm around the Mrs. and a wave at Daddy as they back out” (71). As opposed to faces “all closed up like at cards” (70), it could be that money and successfully negotiating markets tend to reinforce relationships. That good feeling from beating the system (but not really because they could’ve gotten their item for free) is founded upon the idea that monetary value should be emphasized over basic charity. This idea has taken such deep root that it affects even deep human interaction, like family interaction, which only institutionalizes this cynicism and drives it deeper.
It’s pretty incredible to see DFW convey so many ideas (and there’s definitely way more to say about this piece than my little bit), so effectively in such a short space. Perhaps it’s a testament to not only interesting perspective but also careful characterization. Both of these qualities seem to mark many of these stories, especially the brief interviews.