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

But more impressively, B. J. fights back through humor, maintaining a wry distance from his experience that allows him to record the maddening horror of his life without being overcome by despair. The two novels form a rich comedy of manners for an absurdist age as Feinberg comments, for example, on how to supply a stool sample of an acceptable consistency to an indifferent lab technician ("I didn't know which was worse, to be insulted for your feces or complimented on them"), how to gracefully cruise someone standing next to you whom you can only see in your peripheral vision, and how to have safe sex in an age of anxiety.

Feinberg's humor can be directed at gay manners as well as at the absurdity of life in the age of AIDS. Photographed marching with a friend from New Jersey in Manhattan's annual Gay Pride Parade, B. J. is worried, not that he'll be publicly labeled a homosexual, but that people may think he's from déclassé New Jersey.

When B. J. is arrested following the demonstration at St. Patrick's, the outrage of the police denying sick men their AZT in jail is tempered by the conversation that B. J. has with his cell mates. "We discussed the typical New York topics: homoerotic art, apartment rents, the pros and cons of outing, the size of various activists' members and where they might be found at any given time, favorite tearooms." And B. J. is alert to the dark irony of a gay porn producer's capitalizing upon the success of Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Terminator" movies by titling his latest release Sperminator, which he notes makes for "an unintentional AIDS title: death by sperm."

No matter how wrenching the transformation Feinberg records as a generation of bar-hopping clones becomes a community of effective care givers, the poignancy of the situation is invariably undercut by a wisecrack. Such joking does not mitigate in any way the horror of the epidemic or palliate the pain that gay characters feel at their isolation from their birth families; it serves, however, to keep in check any tendency to despair.

B. J.'s friend Gordon confesses to feeling that "I'm living in a state of shell shock. Nothing much affects me immediately anymore. I usually get a delayed reaction." B. J. himself compares their situation to the Jews in Nazi Germany where "people are dropping like flies." The greatest danger to living in the midst of such darkness and daily horror is losing one's ability to feel.

Feinberg's mix of raunchy sexual comedy with heartbreakingly poignant tragedy allows the healing fountain of emotion to flow, as W. H. Auden wrote of William Butler Yeats and the function of poetry in an age of anxiety.


At the height of the AIDS epidemic Feinberg perfected the tragicomic mode of gay literature, creating the occasion for gay readers to laugh through our tears. His strategies were successfully appropriated by a number of writers who are now better known than Feinberg himself.

For example, the opening scene of Paul Rudnick's Jeffrey (1993), in which six men negotiate their sexual encounters when "life is suddenly . . . radioactive," seems a dramatization of Feinberg's satiric guide to "Safe Sex in the Age of Anxiety," which appears as a chapter in Eighty-Sixed.

Likewise, Rudnick's flamboyant Father Dan, who gropes Jeffrey as he is praying in a church, appears to have descended from B.J.'s perpetually randy, alcoholic clerical friend Dennis on whom Eighty-Sixed shockingly opens in the act of carrying out one of his pastoral duties in a highly unorthodox manner: "The priest rarely masturbated during confession. For one thing, it was too cramped, too confining." The fact that Dennis "rarely" does so allows that he does indeed masturbate occasionally. More shocking to the uninitiated reader is the fact that the priest is restricted from masturbating, not by any moral imperative, but simply by the physical inconvenience of the confessional.

Feinberg's humor allows him deftly to challenge the moral authority of the censorious Roman Catholic Church even as he asserts the naturalness of the sexual urge, supplying Rudnick with an example that he deftly exploits.

Similarly, in his mix of apocalyptic foreboding with free-wheeling diatribes against political figures like New York City Mayor Ed Koch, President Reagan, and closeted hate-monger Roy Cohn, Feinberg anticipates the mode of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning Angels in America (1990-91).

Feinberg provided an influential model for how resentment can be released, yet tempered by humor, so as to keep the gay writer sane. By persistently undercutting the tragic seriousness of the situation, Feinberg was able not only to mock his own extreme behaviors, but also to rage against the absurd injustice that he and his contemporaries suffered. Humor helped preserve him from going mad with despair.

Raymond-Jean Frontain

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literature >> Overview:  AIDS Literature

In the twenty years since its first appearance in the West, AIDS has been the subject of a large body of literature, most of it written by gay men and much of it designed to expose readers as closely as possible to the emergency of the epidemic and the suffering of affected individuals.

literature >> Overview:  American Literature: Gay Male, Post-Stonewall

After Stonewall, gay male literature became focused as a movement, aided by the development of gay newspapers, magazines, and quarterlies and the founding of serious gay and lesbian bookstores.

literature >> Overview:  Comedy of Manners

The Comedy of Manners, which flourished on the Restoration stage, has been particularly amenable to twentieth-century gay male writers as a vehicle for social satire in both dramatic and nondramatic works.

literature >> Overview:  Humor

Like other minority groups, gay men and lesbians have had to develop both a particular sense of humor among themselves in order to make their marginal social status endurable and also a defensive awareness toward the rest of the world in order to disarm their adversaries with laughter.

literature >> Overview:  Jewish-American Literature

Jewish-American gay and lesbian literature is marked by its rich heritage, diverse subject matter, and thriving vitality.

social sciences >> ACT UP

Using bold images and confrontational tactics, ACT UP worked to promote awareness of AIDS and challenge the complacency of politicians and government officials in the early years of the epidemic.

literature >> Auden, W. H.

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literature >> Barthes, Roland

French semiotician Roland Barthes argued that the reintroduction of the sentimentality of love into sexuality would be the ultimate transgression.

social sciences >> Cohn, Roy

A homosexual from a liberal background, Roy Cohn can be seen as a deeply twisted, complicit victim of the anti-liberal, homophobic ideology of his era that he thoroughly internalized.

literature >> Kushner, Tony

In addition to being a prize-winning playwright, Tony Kushner has become a celebrity spokesman for gay politics and AIDS activism.

arts >> Rudnick, Paul

Out American playwright, novelist, and screenwriter Paul Rudnick brings a gently subversive wit to all of his projects.

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Carducci, Jane S. "David B. Feinberg (1956- )." Contemporary Gay American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Emmanuel S. Nelson, ed. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1993. 122-27.

Clum, John M. "'And Once I Had It All': AIDS Narratives and Memories of an American Dream." Writing AIDS: Gay Literature, Language, and Analysis. Timothy F. Murphy and Suzanne Poirier, eds. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. 200-24.

"David B. Feinberg Papers, 1976-1994."

Feinberg, David. B. Eighty-Sixed. New York: Viking, 1989.

_____. Spontaneous Combustion. New York: Viking, 1991.

_____. Queer and Loathing: Rants and Raves of a Raging AIDS Clone. New York: Viking, 1994.


    Citation Information
    Author: Frontain, Raymond-Jean  
    Entry Title: Feinberg, David B.  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2005  
    Date Last Updated August 11, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2005, glbtq, inc.  


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