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literature

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Feinberg, David B. (1956-1994)  
 
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Following his death, Feinberg's papers were housed in the Manuscripts and Archives Division of the New York Public Library. These include his personal photograph albums, some of his correspondence, and the manuscripts of all his unpublished material, including the play and a memoir on which he was working at the time of his death.

AIDS: "a thick black cloud of despair"

Feinberg borrows as the epigraph for Eighty-Sixed a statement by semiotician Roland Barthes: "What I claim to live to the full is the contradiction of my time, which may well make sarcasm the condition of truth."

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Indeed, both of Feinberg's novels deal with the "contradiction" inherent in a very particular historical moment when gay men, who had made a cult of physical beauty, should suddenly waste away; when the physical touch that enlivened and stimulated should be revealed also to carry death; and when gay "clones," whose perfection once lay in their seeming detachment, should melt with compassion for the suffering of others. Sarcastic humor, Feinberg's B. J. acknowledges, is "the only way I can cope" with "the black cloud of despair" that settles so quickly upon his community. Yet, however absurd the contradiction that he is forced to live, he has no choice but, like Barthes, "to live [it] to the full."

Part One of Eighty-Sixed documents B. J.'s search for a boyfriend-- at the gym, the baths, the beach; in the Central Park Rambles and the backroom of a leather bar called The Stud; and through a personal ad placed in the local gay newspaper--at a time when the sheer number of available men creates a welter of comic complications. At the baths, for example, "there seemed to be a strict hierarchy of beauty and desirability. Everyone was looking for someone more attractive than himself. Everyone thought he was more attractive than he was in fact. The syntax of desire and seduction was amazingly convoluted." Although B. J. remains unattached, he does contract in the course of his search recurring cases of amoebic dysentery and herpes.

If Part One of Eighty-Sixed maps B. J.'s welcome sexual liberation following his arrival in Manhattan at age twenty-three from a conservative Jewish household in upstate New York, then Part Two--which is titled "Learning How to Cry"-- traces his unanticipated but ultimately more consequential emotional liberation.

B. J. appears at the outset of the novel so out of touch with his feelings that, he jokes, "frequently I take opinion polls from my friends to determine my attitudes, opinions, and actions." Indeed, he arrives in Manhattan aspiring to be a clone, whose appeal lies primarily in his emotional detachment: "The clone speaks in monosyllables. He dances alone in the discotheque, pinching his own nipples. The clone is self-sufficient. The clone is hot sex. He never stays over for the night."

Ironically, the man who hopes to avoid emotional attachment finds himself in the midst of the breaking AIDS epidemic, where he is quickly so benumbed by the senseless suffering that he daily witnesses that he becomes desperate not to feel anything at all. "I think I killed all of my emotions," he tells his friend Dennis after reluctantly agreeing to help care for Bob, a former trick, who is dying. "I'm already dead; I'll never die because I'm already dead."

Although his analyst encourages him to allow himself to cry and thus release the deep emotions that he had dammed up within himself, B. J. repeatedly complains that he is unable to do so. Bob's death, however, and the diagnosis of yet another friend as sero-positive, opens a floodgate.

The novel's haunting final lines, which echo Gabriel Conroy's epiphany at the close of James Joyce's The Dead, refer both to the apocalyptic flood of death and suffering that has been unleashed upon the land, and to B. J.'s own tears which, once they start falling, cannot be stopped: "It begins as a gentle rain. Just a drop, for each illness, each death. And with each passing day it gets worse. Now a downpour. Now a torrent. And there is no likelihood of its ever ending."

A subtly orchestrated apocalyptic horror pervades Eighty-Sixed. In the penultimate chapter, as the family sits down for Thanksgiving dinner, B. J.'s increasingly senile grandmother is agitated by how quickly it has grown dark outside. "It gets so early dark. I can't believe it. . . . Funny, when I came, it was so light, and before I looked around, it was pitch dark. . . . I don't like it when it gets darker." Although B. J. wisecracks about her obsession with "the effects of daylight savings time," his grandmother functions as the chorus in a Greek tragedy, crying out against the darkness that is enveloping B. J.'s world.

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