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literature

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Feinberg, David B. (1956-1994)  
 
page: 1  2  3  4  

Day after day he scans the obituaries in the New York Times and counts the names of patients in the AIDS ward that have been erased from the board at the nurses' station since he last visited Bob. "It's unfathomable. It's incomprehensible. It's beyond human comprehension," a former trick sits muttering to himself in a bar. "It's endless, I tell you, endless. I don't see any end to it."

Perhaps because of its underlying tone of impending apocalypse, Eighty-Sixed remains the most powerful existential drama to emerge from the AIDS pandemic. It is a haunting record of an individual's determination to survive in an absurdly inhospitable world.

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When experiencing anal sex for the first time, B. J. comments: "I wanted it. It still hurt a little, but I wanted it. He moved in and out. Slowly, maddeningly slowly. I wanted it deeper. I wanted him inside me. To fill the hole--I wanted him to fill the hole completely." The hole that cannot be filled refers most immediately to the sexual ache from which B. J. suffers, which no number of encounters can satisfy. More suggestively, however, the "hole" indicates the emotional emptiness that B. J. feels. Indeed, a friend counsels him that he is an emotional black hole into which all his experience falls but from which nothing constructive ever emerges.

"B. J.," which is a nickname formed from the protagonist's full given name, Benjamin Jacob, is also abbreviated slang for male oral copulation ("blow job"), which happens to be the character B. J.'s favorite sexual activity. "Will you be so kind as to present me with your member, that I might draw sustenance from it?" the narrator asks the reader. Feinberg reaches much the same conclusion reiterated by playwright Tennessee Williams, that in the face of the world's heartlessness and life's absurdity the only comfort to be found is in the warmth of another person. AIDS--the black hole into which American gay life seemed to be disappearing in the late 1980s--challenged Feinberg to find a way to justify human existence.

"everybody's connected"

"See that guy on the beach over there?" one of B. J.'s friends asks him after B. J. has reminded the group of the importance of having only protected sex. "Listen, his name is Anthony. My new boyfriend, Raul, used to be his boyfriend last year. Everybody's connected. It's a human chain. It's a little too late for damage control." On one level the passage suggests how easily the virus is transmitted through shared sexual contacts, gay Manhattan proving such a small world that there are only two, or at best three, degrees of sexual separation between any two men.

But, Feinberg also suggests, gay men are connected in other ways as well. "I was a thirty-seven-year-old male homosexual living at the epicenter of the worst epidemic of the century," B. J. declares in Spontaneous Combustion. Fearing that under such pressure he will spontaneously combust and evaporate into steam, he is reminded by a recovered message on his answering machine that "if I kept on despairing, I might as well have been dead." "I can't be a fatalist. There must be something I can do," B. J. argues to himself. And in Spontaneous Combustion he becomes a gay rights activist, joining the community of those people fighting to hold back the encroaching darkness.

Spontaneous Combustion displays a more overt political consciousness than Eighty-Sixed. In it Feinberg challenges the founding principles of "Middle America: Mom, apple pie, bigotry, and hatred." He rails against the public distinction then being made between "innocent victims" like Ryan White (a young heterosexual hemophiliac who died after contracting AIDS through a clotting agent) and those afflicted gay men thought by a significant percentage of the population as being rightly punished for their sexual excesses.

He is disgusted by the American news media's refusal to report on gay health issues even as they fed the public's fascination with "Reagan's asshole" at the time of the president's colon problems. He is infuriated by the hypocrisy of Cardinal O'Connor using his pulpit at St. Patrick's Cathedral to comment negatively upon gay-related political issues with Mayor Ed Koch in attendance, the same mayor who was widely rumored to be a deeply closeted homosexual and whose administration's efforts to fight the epidemic and assist the sick and dying were negligible compared to those in San Francisco. And Feinberg dramatizes the gratuitous cruelty of the police who deprived demonstrators arrested at St. Patrick's Cathedral of their AZT, and who used plastic handcuffs to minimize physical contact with those whom they arrested.

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