Cynthia Carr’s Ground-Breaking David Wojnarowicz Biography is Superb.

Posted on July 31, 2012
Filed Under Book Review, Strong Recommendation | Leave a Comment

There’s a conceit to most biographies.  The biographer does the research, interviews the surviving witnesses and from these often disparate accounts, hobbles together a narrative that bears the imprimatur of omniscience. Cynthia Carr’s new David Wojnarowicz biography is different.  In Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz, Ms. Carr frequently gives the reader several accounts of the same event.  These sometimes contradictory accounts are presented as is. Sometimes Ms. Carr offers her conclusion as to which account is the most likely.  Sometimes not.  Sometimes she draws a conclusion and then contradicts it with another person’s account.  One would think that this would slow the reader down, but it doesn’t, because quite simply this story seems true.

I lived in the East Village in the nineteen-eighties and reading Ms. Carr’s book, transported me back to a time when art galleries seemed to be on every block.  Art galleries with names like:  Gracie Mansion, Civilian Warfare and Ground Zero.  When people hung out at The Limbo Lounge and 8 B-C.  Where you were never more than a few blocks away from an open-air street bazaar where anyone any time of the day or night could purchase a wide variety of “works.”  I almost found myself getting nostalgic for that era.  Until Ms. Carr reminded me that at the Gay Pride Parade “counter-demonstrators” gathered outside of St. Patrick’s Cathedral chanting:  “You won’t be here next year.  You’ll get AIDS and die.  Ha, ha, ha!”

I had forgotten just how hateful a time the nineteen-eighties were.  And yet, in the midst of all this venom, several great artists emerged from within the rough parameters of the East Village. Among them: Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Robert Mapplethorpe and David Wojnarowicz.  Though most people probably remember Mr. Wojnarowicz primarily for his run-ins with National Endowment for the Arts, Ms. Carr makes the case that he was on his way to becoming a great artist long before the NEA controversies.

And yet, from the beginning Mr. Wojnorowicz was different.  Even for an artist he was different.  Starting from his terrible, physically abusive childhood, which Ms. Carr documents with excruciating detail.  And continuing up until the end of his tragically shortened life.

This was someone who never went to art school, who barely finished high school, who never owned a suit, a couch or (until the last years of his life) a credit card, but who came to believe in the truth of his own experience and desire.

Cynthia Carr doesn’t reveal until near the end of the book just how well she came to know David Wojnarowicz, but this doesn’t come as a surprise to the reader.  Because there is a passion that runs through these pages.  Ms. Carr clearly wants to get to the bottom of this.  She wants to record as accurately as possible the many sometimes contradictory accounts that make up this artist’s life story.  In this reader’s opinion, she has succeeded splendidly.

I was somewhat surprised by the brevity of this book’s epilogue.  After such an exhaustive biography, I had expected something longer at the end.  A second reading changed my opinion though.  Because in the end Mr. Wojnarowicz’s artworks are his epilogue.  And the publisher was wise to include several high quality reproductions of them in this book–which I strongly recommend.

Fire in the Belly:  The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz is published by Bloomsbury.

UPDATE 6/4/13:  Last night it was announced that Fire in the Belly won Lambda’s “Gay Memoir/Biography” Award.

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