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Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (Lambda Literary Award - Gay Memoir/Biography) Hardcover – July 17, 2012

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Editorial Reviews

From Bookforum

Carr's book is unimprovable as a biography—thorough, measured, beautifully written, loving but not uncritical—as a concentrated history of his times, and as a memorial, presenting him in his entirety, twenty years dead but his ardor uncooled. — Luc Sante


“[Fire in the Belly is] unimprovable as a biography–thorough, measured, beautifully written, loving but not uncritical -- as a concentrated history of his times, and as a memorial, presenting him in his entirety, twenty years dead but his ardor uncooled.” ―Luc Sante, Bookforum

“It is no small achievement that Carr, who first met the artist when he was part of the East Village art scene of the early ‘80s, shortly before she began writing for the Village Voice, has managed to portray [Wojnarowicz] in remarkably rich dimensions…. Carr's detailed research into Wojnarowicz's days and nights, friends and fall-outs, hook-ups, loves, losses, travels, homeless stretches, intimate connections…and eventual sickness and death is both heartbreaking and unflinchingly honest. Carr has managed to create not only an essential biography but required reading for anyone interested in the ‘80s art world.” ―Christopher Bollen, Interview

“A compelling picture of a time in New York that has now completely vanished, when an existence devoted to art, on the margins, was still possible, and not necessarily something to be romanticized…. The picture of East Village culture that Carr offers--she covered it for years as a reporter for the Village Voice--?is alone worth the price of the book. Despite her friendship with Wojnarowicz in the last months of his life, Carr is willing to paint the artist in clear-eyed prose, balancing unflattering stories of drug use and success-induced paranoia with those of his trenchant and harrowing AIDS activism and defense of freedom of expression. (The intricate details of his battle with right-wing critics will, one hopes, provide fodder for today's protestors.)” ―Andrew Russeth, Modern Painters

“Thanks to Carr's meticulous portrait, [Wojnarowicz's] work again feels primal, magicked away from the bluster of whatever controversies it provoked. We come away from a book like this with a keen sense of life's strangeness and haste, its abuses and beauty, its ultimately terrible vanishing.” ―Jeremy Lybarger, The Brooklyn Rail

“Biographers often have an uncommon knack for describing even the most fascinating individuals and incidents with the dullest possible prose, boring the reader with the most uninteresting childhood details and rushing the parts that matter. Carr doesn't make such mistakes. At almost 600 pages, her book is monumental, yet somehow it feels concise. She uses short, clear sentences throughout, successfully invoking complicated events and their implications with a staccato grace. While she doesn't depart from the conventional linear structure of the biography, she inhabits it with a vitality so often lacking…. thankfully Carr reveals the contradictions and complications of [Wojnarowicz's] life, an important task of any successful biographer…. Fire in the Belly is an impressive work that clearly took years to make…. Carr breaks free of one of the most deadening strictures of the conventional biography: she enters herself not just into the narrative, but into the life of the person she is investigating. While this first meeting happens by chance, and only results in a casual acquaintanceship, Carr's simple act of disclosure allows for the most intimate parts of the book. Fire in the Belly centers around the life of Wojnarowicz, but it also serves as an unofficial history of 1970s and 1980s West Village gay life (and the West Side piers in particular), the emergence of AIDS, the East Village art scene of the 1980s (most extensively), and the censorship wars of the late-‘80s and early-‘90s…. In some ways this book serves as an elegy for a culture of artists in downtown New York ravaged by AIDS…. This is not just a story about an explosive artist who led a tumultuous life, or even an explosive artist and his equally dynamic and equally complicated friends. It's a story about ‘us'…. not just a tender biography of one brazen individual but an intimate text displaying the possibilities of connection in the face of adversity.” ―Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Bookslut

“A prodigious chronicle…. Wojnarowicz emerges from these pages as a forceful, enigmatic character…. probing, masterful storytelling…. A sprawling, elegiac biography that mourns the loss of David Wojnarowicz and the art scene in which he flourished.” ―Hannah Calkins, Shelf Awareness

“[A] lucidly composed, skillfully contextualized first complete biography of David Wojnarowicz…. The most powerful sections of this engrossing book give insight into the intersection between the culture wars of the early 1990s and Wojnarowicz's 1991 work, Tongues of Flame.” ―Publishers Weekly

“Former Village Voice columnist Carr weaves an intense…portrait of a complex artist in a complex time. Carr knew David Wojnarowicz (1954–92), the controversial creator of the art film A Fire in My Belly, and she bears him witness in this politically charged look at his life. Using her skills as a reporter, Carr has pieced together this moving though unsentimental tribute from interviews with friends, candid conversations with Wojnarowicz before his death, and his own deep and provocative writings. She also discusses the politics then and now that dominate the so-called culture wars. An up-close look at the devastation of AIDS, this first full-length biography explains Wojnarowicz's powerful iconography in the context of a (literally) dying art scene.” ―Marianne Laino Sade, Library Journal

“[Carr] tells [Wojnarowicz's] life story remarkably thoroughly and can't-put-it-down readably. Her quotations of his writing reveal an able Kerouacean.” ―Ray Olson, Booklist

“[Carr] delivers the definitive biography of this complicated artist…. she provides a thoroughly researched picture of his life and times…the author offers some intriguing insights about Wojnarowicz's inner demons and his devotion to his art.” ―Kirkus Reviews


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Product Details

  • Series: Lambda Literary Award - Gay Memoir/Biography
  • Hardcover: 624 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA (July 17, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1596915331
  • ISBN-13: 978-1596915336
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #671,624 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Michael Salcman on August 2, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Fire in the Belly, the first biography of David Wojnarowicz, is perhaps the saddest and most devestating book you will read this year. It contains graphic descriptions of the child abuse Wojnarowicz suffered in a completely dysfunctional family circle, his life on the streets as a hustler and male prostitute, his combustible personality and addictions to cocaine and heroin, his poverty and hand-to-mouth existence. The book situates him in the context of the emerging East Village art scene, the arrival of the AIDS epidemic, the widespread loss of major cultural figures and the important legal battles Wojnarowicz fought on behalf of the First Amendment and the gay community. Somehow, out of all this turmoil, the visceral energy of Wojnarowicz's paintings, photographs, performance art, books and films, emerges with the power of revelation. Wojnarowicz was essentially self-taught but he had the support of a major artistic presence, photographer Peter Hujar, who served as mentor and muse, friend, critic and (briefly) lover. The sections on Hujar are so evocative that the book almost becomes a dual biography. Since Wojnarowicz's death in 1992, his reputation as the central figure in the East Village scene has soared and critical reception of his art has evolved; he is now the beneficiary of what is sure to remain the pioneering and standard biography of a truly significant artist.
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25 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Grady Harp HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 17, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Cynthia Carr has accomplished the near impossible: she has captured the essence of the brilliance of genius that was David Wojnarowicz while keeping him in context of the brutally sad life he led. Carr met Wojnarowicz in 1982 in the office of the art magazine Artforum just before Wojnarowicz became a leading figure in the burgeoning East Village 1980s art scene and, soon after, a pioneering AIDS activist. He had been living in New York for at least 15 years, ever since his alcoholic father had moved him and his siblings from their home in suburban New Jersey to their mother's apartment in Manhattan. The parents had divorced years earlier, after a long stretch of domestic violence and abuse that sometimes involved the children. As Carr states `He was not supposed to be there.' A friend, from whom he was hoping to borrow money, had let him in. But he was also out of place in a cultural sense: a young street artist trespassing in the halls of elite culture. `He was a force, she recalls. They became acquaintances.

And it is just kind of relationship that Carr preserves as she takes us on the exceedingly well document biography of this seminal artist who with Keith Haring, Nan Goldin, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Wojnarowicz helped redefine art for the times. She describes the changes occurring in the New York art scene along with the wild life styles of the times - and the aftermath of living the life of a male prostitute, a junkie, homeless, a man of the filth of the streets. His art performances and exhibitions are legendary and Carr paints them well. As uptown art collectors looked downtown for the next big thing, this community of cultural outsiders was suddenly thrust into the national spotlight.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Angel Lover on November 1, 2014
Format: Paperback
David Wojnarowiz (voyna-ROW-vich) was born in 1954. His father beat him, and he was sexually abused by older boys. He barely finished high school and did not attend college, yet in the 1980s he became, for a short time, an art sensation in New York. He didn’t care about success, often living hand to mouth, and refused to take the next step that would ensure stability. That would have been selling out.

“David’s work was full of sex and violence—politics expressed at the level of the body. He painted distress. Soldiers and bombers. Falling buildings and junkies. His images had the tension of some niceness opened up to its ruined heart. In the montages he began to develop, David would expose the Real Deal under the artifacts—wars and rumors of wars, industrial wastelands, mythological beasts, and the evolutionary spectrum from dinosaur to humanity’s rough beast” (231).

David was gay but arrived at that place by way of a rather indirect route. He preferred the intimacy of a relationship but often turned to the anonymous sex prevalent in New York City until the AIDS crisis became a problem. In the late eighties, he and his longtime companion were tested and both came up HIV positive.

“David was beginning to consciously connect his family’s pathology to a larger worldview. He added an anecdote in the Eye about watching a cop kick a dope-sick junkie while arresting him: ‘And I’m feeling rage ‘cause in the midst of my bad mood this cop is inadvertently reaching in with his tentacles and probing in ice-pick fashion some vulnerable area from years ago maybe when my dad took me down in the basement for another routine of dog chain and baseball bat beatings or when he killed my pet rabbit and made me eat it . . . blam . . . blam . . . blam’“ (312).
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Theodore C. Bale on April 17, 2013
Format: Hardcover
I've been glued to this book since the first chapter and now, in the midst of its final pages, I know I'll miss Carr's insightful, scholarly and compassionate study when I'm finished. It is really a vast study of an extraordinarily complex movement in late 20th century art, including everything you wanted to know about the galleries in the East Village then (I was a young art enthusiast and music/performance fan at the time, and now, years later, I have a more complete understanding of the whole scene thanks to Carr). The book is an honest and detailed biography. Especially important is the thorough investigation of Wojnarowicz's long relationship with photographer Peter Hujar. Carr understands and loves her subject, but she maintains the skeptic tone of a honest researcher and archivist throughout. This book is a precious companion to Wojnarowicz's own writings. Other significant books you might want to investigate while reading this are Peter Hujar's Portraits in Life and Death and Samuel Delany's Times Square Read Times Square Blue, among many. And if you want to explore the many layers of a video like Fire in My Belly, this is where to go. Carr is not only an excellent biographer but a wonderful arts critic as well. Highly recommended.
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