One of the many joys of Infinite Jest, made possible because of its tremendous length, is its massive cast of characters. The deeper you go, the more characters you encounter and, as you go even deeper, the intersecting lines between the characters become apparent. Just take a look at this diagram. To celebrate the book’s huge ensemble, we’re counting down the 10 best characters over the next two weeks, culminating with the #1 character on Friday, April 13. On that day, we’ll post one giant composite article with all 10 characters. For the list, we’re excluding the book’s two “main” characters, Hal and Gately, because they’re given time and consideration that the rest of the characters don’t get, and thus can’t be evaluated in the same way. So join us as we reveal our favorites and be sure to tell us whether you agree of disagree with our selections in the comments!
Today, we’ll look at the E.T.A. trainer with the strong moral compass.
10. Barry Loach
Loach’s own soul began to sprout little fungal patches of necrotic rot, and his upbeat view of the so-called normal and respectable human race began to undergo dark revision.
E.T.A. trainer Barry Loach is mentioned only two or three times in the first 900 pages of Infinite Jest. But then, on page 966, in a scene with Hal and the other players readying for Fundraising tennis matches, the narrative zooms in on Loach, who is shaving Hal’s ankle and readying it for athletic tape (“everybody’s had his hands on Loach’s shoulders at one time or another”). From there, in two fat paragraphs that span five pages, we get the long and short of Loach’s life.
Resembling “a blunt and scuttly wingless fly,” Loach comes from an enormous Catholic family. His mother, more than anything, wants one of her children to enter the Roman Catholic clergy. For the following reasons, Loach child after Loach child does not fulfill her wishes:
First-born Loach: Killed in the Brazilian O.N.A.N./U.N. joint action
Second-born Loach: Poisoned by ciguatoxins from a tainted blackfin grouper
Third-born Loach (Therese): Becomes a ring girl in a sequined leotard for professional fights in Atlantic City
Another Loach: Falls helplessly in love and marries right out of high school
Still Another Loach: Burned to play the cymbals; fulfilled wish
And all the way down the line until it’s just Barry (the youngest) and the second-youngest brother. Luckily for Barry, his older brother:
“Was always a pious and contemplative and big-hearted kid, brimming over with abstract love and an innate faith in the indwelling goodness of all men’s souls, [and he] began to show evidence of a true spiritual calling to a life of service in the R.C. clergy.”
But then, not-so-luckily:
“He suffered at age twenty-five a sudden and dire spiritual decline in which his basic faith in the innate indwelling goodness of men like spontaneously combusted and disappeared–and for no apparent or dramatic reason; it just seemed as if the brother had suddenly contracted a black misanthropic spiritual outlook the way some twenty-five-year-old men contract Sanger-Brown’s ataxia or M.S., a kind of degenerative Lou Gehrig’s Disease of the spirit–and his interest in serving man and God-in-man and nurturing the indwelling Christ in people through Jesuitical pursuits underwent an understandable nosedive.”
This is a problem for Barry, the very last Loach, whose “true vocation of splints and flexion” would become nullified should his older brother change his mind and stop his religious pursuit. So, Barry heads down to the seminary to do some convincing. And the two brothers, after “heated and high-level debates on spirituality and the soul’s potential, not unlike Alyosha and Ivan’s conversations in the good old Brothers K.,” settle on this experiment: Barry is to make himself look squalid and stand outside the Park Street T-station and hold out his hand and instead of asking for change from passerbys, he is to ask them just to touch him. If one person touches him, just one, Barry’s brother will re-enter the seminary.
It turns out that “holding out his hand and asking people to touch him ensured that just about the last thing any passerby in his right mind would want to do was touch him.” However, saying “Touch me, just touch me, please,” while not an effective way to get a stranger to touch you, is an effective way to panhandle, and Barry begins to make a good deal of money, “significantly more than he was earning at his work-study job wrapping ankles and sterilizing dental prostheses for Boston College lacrosse players.”
But no touching. Months pass. Barry’s brother stops coming to watch, Barry himself gets fired from his work-study, and basically turns into a bum himself in his quest to get someone to touch him. Despair reigns. He “falls in with the absolute silt at the very bottom of the metro Boston socioeconomic duck-pond.”
But then, in the ninth month, just when Barry is “dangerously close to disappearing forever into the fringes and dregs of metro Boston street life,” something happens, courtesy of Mario Incandenza:
Mario, being alone and only fourteen and largely clueless about anti-stem defensive strategies outside T-stations, had had no one worldly or adult along with him there to explain to him why the request of men with outstretched hands for a simple handshake or High Five shouldn’t automatically be honored and granted, and Mario had extended his clawlike hand and touched and heartily shaken Loach’s own fuliginous hand, which led through convoluted but kind of heartwarming and faith-reaffirming series of circumstances to B. Loach, even w/o an official B.A., being given an Asst. Trainer’s job at E.T.A.
Loach’s memorability is a product of his story’s placement. The fact that Wallace puts his story, which is one of the book’s main arguments for the good of human nature, at the very tail of the narrative is quite significant. In fact, the image of Mario and Loach shaking hands is the third-to-last passage of the book (the only following scenes are Orin revealing the Master’s location and Gately’s climactic vision of Facklemann’s death). Infinite Jest is both comedy and tragedy, and it makes cases for both the good of human nature (Mario, Bruce Green, Joelle Van Dyne) and the evil of human nature (Lenz, the A.F.R. [the broomstick moment], The M.P.), and maybe the book isn’t about one winning out over the other. But in Loach’s particular case, it actually does boil down to good vs. evil, and the simple (yet miraculous) appearance of Mario, resolving the question in the favor of good, makes for one of the book’s most touching moments.