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Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration

Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration

by David Wojnarowicz

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In Close to the Knives, David Wojnarowicz gives us an important and timely document: a collection of creative essays — a scathing, sexy, sublimely humorous and honest personal testimony to the "Fear of Diversity in America." From the author's violent childhood in suburbia to eventual homelessness on the streets and piers of New York City, to


In Close to the Knives, David Wojnarowicz gives us an important and timely document: a collection of creative essays — a scathing, sexy, sublimely humorous and honest personal testimony to the "Fear of Diversity in America." From the author's violent childhood in suburbia to eventual homelessness on the streets and piers of New York City, to recognition as one of the most provocative artists of his generation — Close to the Knives is his powerful and iconoclastic memoir. Street life, drugs, art and nature, family, AIDS, politics, friendship and acceptance: Wojnarowicz challenges us to examine our lives — politically, socially, emotionally, and aesthetically.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"David Wojnarowicz is brilliantly attuned to American talk and responsive to the moods and innovations of society's truants. He also has the best conscience of any writer I know. This fierce, erotic, haunting, truthful book should be given to every teenager immediately." — Dennis Cooper

"Wojnarowicz's writing fairly smokes with acrid ironies. It's passionate and personal." — New York

"Everyone should read Close to the Knives to understand the overall political agenda behind suffering, whether that suffering occurs because of a dysfunctional family, religion, or government. Wojnarowicz explores all of his painful life experiences as a plea for all of us to become more compassionate and caring human beings. This isn't just David's story, it's our story, our nation's story." — Karen Finley

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The New York-based visual artist and AIDS activist whose work has been targeted by Jesse Helms and the Rev. Donald Wildmon as obscene debuts here with a collection of writings marked by stunning originality and sharp polemics. The alternation of poetic observations of a desolate, at times dissolute life on the road and in squalid urban settings with indictments of a homophobic ``establishment'' might at first appear ill-advised; soon, however, it becomes clear that Wojnarowicz's visual and verbal gifts are inextricably bound to his experience as a homosexual in an American underclass. In images, rhythms and verbal textures that often seem like written analogues to his paintings, Wojnarowicz displays an ability to capture the insensate beauty of much of the American landscape, and light it with a burning human hunger: ``Down along the service road the prehistoric silhouettes of sixteen-wheel rigs ground their gears in the blackness. . . . As each cab swung by me there was a video blaze of tiny green and red ornamental cab lights framing the darkened windows containing a momentary fractured bare arm or dim face filled with the stony gaze of road life.'' In the course of this memoir, the author cooly sketches the outlines of a troubled adolescence--parental kidnapping, drug use, prostitution--making survival alone seem miraculous. What Kerouac was to a generation of alienated youth, what Genet was to the gay demimonde in postwar Europe, Wojnarowicz may well be to a new cadre of artists compelled by circumstance to speak out in behalf of personal freedom. This is a book sublime in poetry, fierce in outrage. Author tour. (Apr.)
Library Journal
Wojnarowicz is a controversial contemporary artist who drew national attention when the NEA withdrew a grant for the artist's gallery, Artist's Space, in response to the lacerating essay he wrote about AIDS to accompany the show. He later sued the Reverend Donald Wildmon for copyright infringement and misrepresentation for using excerpts from his works when testifying before Congress. The book deals with subjects that arouse varied responses but rarely indifference. This very angry young man, the product of a lifetime of abuse inflicted by himself as well as others, is a traveler on the road to emotional and physical disintegration. Neither an autobiography nor essays, the work consists of segments, of incidents and images, some outrageous, some moving. It is an attempt to afford the reader a glimpse into outsider society but does so in a way that seems to aim more at alienation than amity. There is great pain here and a plea for compassion, but the rage and fear of which he accuses the establishment seems as much an echo of his own voice as it is of outside reality.-- Paula Frosch, Metropolitan Museum of Art Lib., New York

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

Close to the Knives

A Memoir of Disintegration

By David Wojnarowicz


Copyright © 1991 David Wojnarowicz
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-8961-5



So my heritage is a calculated fuck on some faraway sun-filled bed while the curtains are being sucked in and out of an open window by a passing breeze. I'd be lying if I were to tell you I could remember the smell of sweat as I hadn't even been born yet. Conception's just a shot in the dark. I'm supposed to be dead right now but I just woke up this dingo motherfucker having hit me across the head with a slab of marble that instead of splitting my head open laid a neat sliver of eyeglass lens through the bull's-eye center of my left eye. We were coming through this four-and-a-half-day torture of little or no sleep. That's the breaks. We were staying at this one drag queen's house but her man did her wrong by being seen by some other queen with a vicious tongue in a darkened lot on the west side fucking some cute little puerto rican boy in the face and when me and my buddy knocked on the door to try and get a mattress to lay down on she sent a bullet through the door thinking it was her man—after three days of no sleep and maybe a couple of stolen donuts my eyes start separating: one goes left and one goes right and after four days of sitting on some stoop on a side street head cradled in my arms seeing four hours of pairs of legs walking by too much traffic noise and junkies trying to rip us off and the sunlight so hot this is a new york summer I feel my brains slowly coming to a boil in whatever red-blue liquid the brains float in and looking down the street or walking around I begin to see large rats the size of shoeboxes; ya see them just outta the corner of your eyes, in the outer sphere of sight and when ya turn sharp to look at them they've just disappeared around the corner or down subway steps and I'm so sick my gums start bleedin' everytime I breathe and after the fifth day I start seeing what looks like the limbs of small kids, arms and legs in the mouths of these rats and no screaming mommies or daddies to lend proof to the image and late last night me and my buddy were walking around with two meat cleavers we stole from Macy's gourmet section stuck in between our belts and dry skin lookin' for someone to mug and some queer on the upper east side tried to pick us up but my buddy's meat cleaver dropped out the back of his pants just as the guy was opening the door to his building and clang clangalang the guy went apeshit his screams bouncing through the night off half a million windows of surrounding apartments we ran thirty blocks till we felt safe. Some nights we had so much hate for the world and each other all these stupid dreams of finding his foster parents who he tried poisoning with a box of rat poison when they let him out of the attic after keeping him locked in there for a month and a half after all dear it's summer vacation and no one will miss you here's a couple of jugs of springwater and cereal don't eat it all at once we're off on a holiday after all it's better this than we return you to that nasty kids home. His parents had sharp taste buds and my buddy spent eight years in some jail for the criminally insane even though he was just a minor. Somehow though he had this idea to find his folks and scam lots of cash off them so we could start a new life. Some nights we'd walk seven or eight hundred blocks practically the whole island of manhattan crisscrossing east and west north and south each on opposite sides of the streets picking up every wino bottle we found and throwing it ten feet into the air so it crash exploded a couple of inches away from the other's feet—on nights that called for it every pane of glass in every phone booth from here to south street would dissolve in a shower of light. We slept good after a night of this in some abandoned car boiler room rooftop or lonely drag queen's palace.

If I were to leave this country and never come back or see it again in films or sleep I would still remember a number of different things that sift back in some kind of tidal motion. I remember when I was eight years old I would crawl out the window of my apartment seven stories above the ground and hold on to the ledge with ten scrawny fingers and lower myself out above the sea of cars burning up eighth avenue and hang there like a stupid motherfucker for five minutes at a time testing my own strength dangling I liked the rough texture of the bricks against the tips of my sneakers and when I got tired I'd haul myself back in for a few minutes' rest and then climb back out testing testing testing how do I control this how much control do I have how much strength do I have waking up with a mouthful of soot sleeping on these shitty bird-filled rooftops waking up to hard-assed sunlight burning the tops of my eyes and I ain't had much to eat in three days except for the steak we stole from the A&P and cooked in some bum kitchen down on the lower east side the workers were friendly to us that way and we looked clean compared to the others and really I had dirt scabs behind my ears I hadn't washed in months but once in a while in the men's room of a horn and hardart's on forty-second street in between standing around hustling for some red-eyed bastard with a pink face and a wallet full of singles to come up behind me and pinch my ass murmuring something about good times and good times for me was just one fucking night of solid sleep which was impossible I mean in the boiler room of some high-rise the pipes would start clanking and hissing like machine pistons putting together a tunnel under the river from here to jersey and it's only the morning 6:00 a.m. heat piping in to all those people up above our heads and I'm looking like one of them refugees in the back of life magazine only no care packages for me they give me some tickets up at the salvation army for three meals at a soup kitchen where you get a bowl of mucus water and sip rotten potatoes while some guy down the table is losing his eye into his soup he didn't move fast enough on the line and some fucked-up wino they hired as guard popped him in the eye with a bottle and I'm so lacking in those lovely vitamins they put in wonder-bread and real family meals that when I puff one drag off my cigarette blood pours out between my teeth sopping into the nonfilter and that buddy of mine complains that he won't smoke it after me and in the horn and hardart's there's a table full of deaf mutes and they're the loudest people in the joint one of them seventy years old takes me to a nearby hotel once a month when his disability check comes in and he has me lay down on my belly and he dry humps me harder and harder and his dick is soft and banging against my ass and his arm is mashing my little face up as he goes through his routine of pretending to come and starts hollering the way only a deaf mute can holler like donkeys braying when snakes come around but somehow in the midst of all that I love him maybe it's the way he returns to his table of friends in the cafeteria a smile busted across his face and I'm the one with the secret and twenty dollars in my pocket and then there's the fetishist who one time years ago picked me up and told me this story of how he used to be in the one platoon in fort dix where they shoved all the idiots and illiterates and poor bastards that thought kinda slow and the ones with speeth spitch speeeeeeech impediments that means you talk funny he said and I nodded one of my silent yes's that I'd give as conversation to anyone with a tongue in those days and every sunday morning this sadistic sonuvabitch of a sergeant would come into the barracks and make the guys come out one by one and attempt to publicly read the sunday funnies blondie and dagwood and beetle baily and dondi, with his stupid morals I was glad when some little delinquent punched his face in one sunday and he had a shiner three sundays in a row full color till the strip couldn't get any more mileage out of it and some cop busted the delinquent and put him back in the reform school he escaped from, and all the while these poor slobs are trying to read even one line the sergeant is saying lookit this stupid sonuvabitch how the fuck do you expect to serve this country of yours and you can't even read to save your ass and he'd run around the barracks smacking all the guys in the head one after the other and make them force them to laugh at this guy tryin' to read until it was the next guy's turn, and when we got to this guy's place there was three cats pissing all over the joint crusty brown cans of opened cat food littering the floor window open so they could leave by the fire escape and he had this thing for rubber he'd dress me up in this sergeant's outfit but with a pair of rubber sneakers that they made only during world war two when it was important to do that I guess canvas was a material they needed for the war effort or something and anyway so he would have me put on these pure rubber sneakers and the sergeant's outfit and then a rubber trenchcoat and then he'd grease up his dick and he would start fucking another rubber sneaker while on his belly and I'd have to shove my sneaker's sole against his face and tell him to lick the dirt off the bottom of it and all the while cursing at him telling him how stupid he was a fuckin' dingo stupid dog ain't worth catfood where'd you get your fuckin' brains surprised they even let ya past the m.p.'s on the front gate oughta call in the trucks and have you carted off to some idiot farm and where'd you get your brains and where'd you get your brains and when he came into his rubber sneaker he'd roll over all summer sweaty and say oh that was a good load musta ate some eggs today and I'm already removing my uniform and he says he loves the way my skeleton moves underneath my skin when I bend over to retrieve one of my socks.



It's so simple: the man without the eye against a receding wall, the subtle deterioration of weather, of shading, of images engraved in the flaking walls. See the quiet outline of a dog's head in plaster, simple as the splash of a fish in dreaming, and then the hole in the wall farther along, framing a jagged sky swarming with glints of silver and light. So simple, the appearance of night in a room full of strangers, the maze of hallways wandered as in films, the fracturing of bodies from darkness into light, sounds of plane engines easing into the distance.

It is the appearance of a portrait, not the immediate vision I love so much: that of the drag queen in the dive waterfront coffee shop turning toward a stranger and giving a coy seductive smile that reveals a mouth of rotted teeth, but the childlike rogue slipped out from the white-sheeted bed of Pasolini; the image of Jean Genet cut loose from the fine lines of fiction, uprooted from age and time and continent, and hung up slowly behind my back against a tin wall. It's the simple sense of turning slowly, feeling the breath of another body in a quiet room, the stillness shattered by the scraping of a fingernail against a collar line. Turning is the motion that disrupts the vision of fine red and blue lines weaving through the western skies. It is the motion that sets into trembling the subtle water movements of shadows, like lines following the disappearance of a man beneath the surface of an abandoned lake.

He was moving in with the gradual withdrawal of light, a passenger on the shadows, heat cording his forehead and arms, passion lining the folds of his shirt. A handsome guy with unruly black hair, one eye like the oceans in fading light, the other a great vacant yawn shadowed black as the image of his leather jacket, all of it moved with mirage shivers over his heavy shoulders. There is a slight red color like a bruise or a blush to his cheeks, the muscles of his face smoothing into angles: hard jaw and a nose that might have once been broken. I was losing myself in the language of his movements, the slow rise and fall of a cigarette as he lifted it to his lips and brought it back down again, each drag leaving a small spherical haze to dissipate against his face.

Outside the windows the river light turned from blues to grays to flashes of rain. A serious dark veil ran the length of the horizon; there's a texture to it, a seediness like dream darkness you can breathe in or be consumed by. It swept down bringing with it strong waves and water, sending tiny people running for cars or shelter among the warehouse walls. Headlights began appearing, rain swinging through the holes in the roofs, through the windows emptied of glass. Sounds of dull puddles spreading along the floorboards. The stranger turned on his heel in the gray light and passed into other rooms, passing through layers of evening, like a dim memory, faceless for moments, just the movements of his body across the floor, the light of doorway after doorway casting itself across the length of his legs.

The river was dirty and coming toward me in the wind. A sixteen-wheel rig parked idling near the corner of the warehouse. Through the dark windows I could see this cowboy all the way from Wyoming sitting high up in the front seat, a woman with a blond bouffant seated next to him raising a bottle of whiskey to her lips. The refrigeration motor hummed while big gauze-covered bodies of cattle swung from hooks in the interior of the truck. Out along the waterfront asphalt-strip cars were turning and circling around. Headlights like lighthouse beacons drifted over the surface of the river, brief and unobtrusive, then swinging around and illuminating the outlines of men, of strangers, people I might or might not have known because their faces were invisible, just black silhouettes, outlined suddenly as each car passes one after the other, pale interior faces turned toward the windows, then fading into distance.

Sitting in the Silver Dollar restaurant earlier in the afternoon, straddling a shining stool and ordering a small cola, I dropped a black beauty and let the capsule ride the edge of my tongue for a moment, as usual, and then swallowed it. Then the sense of regret washes over me like whenever I drop something, a sudden regret at what might be the disappearance of regular perceptions: the flat drift of sensations gathered from walking and seeing and smelling and all the associations; and that strange tremor like a ticklishness that never quite reaches the point of being unbearable. There's a slow sensation of that type coming into the body, from the temples to the abdomen to the calves, and riding with it in waves, spurred on by containers of coffee, into the marvelousness of light and motion and figures coasting along the streets. Yet somehow that feeling of beauty that comes riding off each surface and movement around me always has a slight trace of falseness about it, a slight sense of regret, felt at the occurring knowledge that it's a substance flowing in my veins that cancels out the lines of thought brought along with time and aging and serious understanding of the self.

So there was that feeling of regret, a sudden impulse to bring the pill back up, a surge of weariness with the self, then the settling back and the wait for the sensations to begin. I smoked a fast cigarette and the door opened bringing with it sunlight and wind.


Excerpted from Close to the Knives by David Wojnarowicz. Copyright © 1991 David Wojnarowicz. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

David Wojnarowicz is brilliantly attuned to American talk and responsive to the moods and innovations of society's truants. He also has the best conscience of any writer I know. This fierce, erotic, haunting, truthful book should be given to every teenager immediately.
Karen Finley
Everyone should read Close to the Knives to understand the overall political agenda behind suffering, whether that suffering occurs because of a dysfunctional family, religion, or government. Wojnarowicz explores all of his painful life experiences as a plea for all of us to become more compassionate and caring human beings. This isn't just David's story; it's our story, our nation's story.

Meet the Author

David Wojnarowicz was an American painter, photographer, writer, filmmaker, performance artist, and AIDS activist prominent in the New York City art world. He was born on September 14, 1954. He died of AIDS on July 22, 1992.

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