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Barnett, Allen (1955-1991)  
 
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Allen Barnett is the author of The Body and Its Dangers and Other Stories (1990), a collection of short stories unlikely to be surpassed for its depiction of gay life at the height of the AIDS pandemic. His stories are distinguished for their meditations upon the gay body in time, and by their consciousness of how the past both clashes with and informs the present.

Barnett writes with a lyric sparseness in which emotional drama is both etched with a diamond-like sharpness and illuminated by a diamond-like brightness. One story in particular, "The Times As It Knows Us," has been repeatedly singled out for the depth of its mediation on what "it is humanly possible to do" in the face of the "unacceptable behavior" of others, and even of oneself, in a world that has itself been rendered "unacceptable" by the violent disruption of everyday life by AIDS.

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Biography

Barnett was born on May 23, 1955, in a small town near Joliet, Illinois, the oldest of seven children. In an interview with Philip Gambone, Barnett records that his mother never married his father, and that his siblings were the products of her subsequent marriages to two other men. Barnett described his family as "dysfunctional." His mother temporarily put all seven children into a Roman Catholic orphanage when she found herself unable to care for them.

In 1973, Barnett enrolled in Chicago's Loyola University as a theater major, having earlier attended a thirteen-week summer drama workshop for high school students at the University of Iowa. He spent two of his undergraduate years in Rome, the site of his story "Succor."

Following graduation, Barnett moved to New York City, initially to seek work as an actor, but eventually enrolling in a Master's degree program in liberal studies at the New School. In 1979, he transferred to the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at Columbia University, where he studied with such literary notables as Elizabeth Hardwick, Daniel Halpern, and Manuel Puig, before graduating in 1981.

During the 1980s, Barnett was active in gay literary and social circles, summering on Fire Island, and making friends with and receiving professional advice from such diverse talents as Robert Ferro and Richard Howard. In 1985 he helped to found the Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation (GLAAD).

In the late 1980s Barnett worked for opera agent Herbert Breslin, who was impressed by Barnett's writing. Breslin asked a mutual friend, Sandra McCormack, to forward Barnett's stories to Michael Denneny, an influential editor at St. Martin's Press, where Denneny had founded the Stonewall Inn Editions, a groundbreaking series in gay and lesbian letters. Denneny not only contracted to publish The Body and Its Dangers and Other Stories, but placed one of the stories ("Philostorgy, Now Obscure") in the highly influential New Yorker magazine in advance of the book's publication.

Barnett had less than one year to enjoy the resulting acclaim. He died on August 14, 1991, of AIDS-related causes, having earlier been treated for Kaposi's Sarcoma in the lungs.

"the sensitive logic of pain"

The most insightful comment on Barnett's writing is by fellow fiction writer Philip Gambone: "Like the bird in Robert Frost's 'The Oven Bird,' Barnett's stories pose the question, What to make of a diminished thing? 'What do you make of the present, the condensed, the concentrated moment?' the cancer-ridden narrator asks in the title story ["The Body and Its Dangers"]. The pull of each story is toward some kind of 'unquestioning faith in the present tense,' toward some accommodation of 'This is you now,' even though the present world may be unacceptable, and past unhappiness and the dread of what's to come continue to haunt. In avoiding making AIDS a metaphor and, at the same time, finding in his stories a language to describe the dreadful urgency of every moment, Barnett made an enormous and beautiful contribution to contemporary gay literature."

Barnett's stories analyze with exquisite precision what the narrator of one story calls "the sensitive logic of pain." In "Snapshot," a man who never knew his biological father suffers the breakup of his relationship with an older man and mentor, leaving him caught between the desire for detachment from all human feeling and the dawning recognition that such a willed disconnectedness "would not be without its own kind of terror."

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