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Feinberg, David B. (1956-1994)  
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"In an absurd world, humor may be the only appropriate response," reflects novelist David B. Feinberg in a 1992 essay published in The Advocate and later collected in his Queer and Loathing (1994). "Humor is a survival tactic, a defense mechanism, a way of lessening the horror," he continues. "I would probably go literally mad if I had to deal with AIDS at face value, without the filter of humor. Once you joke about something, you appropriate it; you attain a certain amount of control over it."

In a pair of thinly veiled autobiographical novels, Feinberg anatomizes the world of the urban gay man who came of age in the climate of sexual and social liberation that followed the Stonewall Revolution; who adventurously explored the expanding parameters of gay life in the 1970s, experimenting with sex, drugs, and the creation of alternate social institutions; who unexpectedly found himself called upon to care for sick and dying friends as the AIDS epidemic first manifested itself in the early and mid-1980s; and who was challenged by his own deteriorating health to find alternate ways of fashioning himself as a gay man.

Few novelists have told as memorably as Feinberg the giddy story of exercising the new-found sexual power that American gays experienced in the 1970s, and the ignominy of having to plead for one's very life from intransigent, even belligerent, political and commercial entities just a decade later.

At a time when medical science struggled to understand how the HIV virus replicated itself and could spread as quickly as it did--and when bureaucratic indifference to the mounting death toll rendered the world nightmarishly absurd--Feinberg's dark humor proved a powerful act of resistance. In Feinberg's world, a gay man's body may indeed be humbled and eventually destroyed by the combined force of an insidious virus and an inhumanly malevolent institutionalized . But by joking in the face of his imminent demise, however, that man is able to distance himself from the threat and, thus, resist the possibility of being further paralyzed by despair. Laughter, Feinberg understood, manifests a gay man's final act of defiance, a refusal to capitulate to a fate that he nonetheless understands is inescapable.


Born on November 25, 1956, David Barish Feinberg grew up in a Jewish household in Syracuse, New York, the younger of two children. After graduating in 1977 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a degree in mathematics, he moved to southern California, where he explored his sexuality and came out to his family.

Feinberg returned to the east coast in 1979 to undertake a Master's degree in linguistics at New York University. By 1981 he had settled into a studio apartment in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood and begun work as a computer programmer at the Modern Language Association of America, a professional organization serving college and university language and literature professors. He would maintain the same apartment and employment for the remaining thirteen years of his life.

While an undergraduate at MIT, Feinberg studied creative writing with novelist John Hersey. Feinberg completed his first novel, "Calculus," before returning to New York in 1979. It remains unpublished--and rightly so, Feinberg joked in an interview, calling it a novel that only a math major could conceive.

From 1986 to 1987 Feinberg contributed a monthly humor column—titled "Tales from Hell's Kitchenette"--about gay life in Manhattan to Mandate magazine. His columns became the basis of his first novel, Eighty-sixed (1989), in which in Part One Feinberg presents a gay male in his early twenties named B. J. Rosenthal exploring the raucous sexual possibilities that a city like New York offered in 1980; and in Part Two, which is set six years later, anatomizes the community's growing awareness of the horror that is AIDS. The novel, honored with an early Lambda Literary Award for gay fiction, was followed by Spontaneous Combustion (1991), which examines the manner in which B. J. copes with his own diagnosis and "comes out" to his family as HIV-positive.

Following Feinberg's own diagnosis in August 1987 as sero-positive, he joined the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), participating in numerous demonstrations against drug companies who were withholding experimental treatments for AIDS-sufferers, and against political and civic leaders whose indifference, if not outright opposition to AIDS-education and health care programs, worsened the plight of the AIDS-sick and dying. These demonstrations included, most famously, the disruption of a mass in St. Patrick's Cathedral celebrated by the censorious, highly conservative, and politically influential John Cardinal O'Connor, the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York. Feinberg's activist writings were collected in Queer and Loathing: Rants and Raves of a Raging AIDS Clone, which appeared shortly before his death from an AIDS-related illness on November 4, 1994.

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