“Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz” by Cynthia Carr— An Amazing Read

Carr, Cynthia. “Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz”, Bloomsbury USA, 2012.

An Amazing Read

Amos Lassen

“Fire in the Belly” is a book you do not want to miss even with its 615 pages. It has to be one of the most rewarding books I have read in a very long time and I cannot praise it enough. Even if you have no idea who David Wojnarowicz was, you learn about the scene in New York’s East Village in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Let’s go back to 2010 when Washington’s National Portrait Gallery responded to protests from the Catholic League by censoring an excerpt of Wojnarowicz’s “Fire in the Belly”. We do not often hear of a work of art that can cause controversy like this and it is this incident around which that the biography of the artist revolves. Wojnarowicz was a major voice of his generation and it is so interesting to follow his life which he began as an orphan and then went on to years of selling his body on the streets of New York and died in 1992 from AIDS. He found fame in the East Village, a place where art was not the regular. He and others (Keith Haring, Nan Goldin, Jean-Michel Basquiat) brought a new definition to art at a time when art dealers were looking for something new. This brought about a culture war which evolved into the gentrification of the East Village that came about the same time as did the AIDS epidemic. Up until now his story has been untold and now we get a look at one of the most controversial artists of the time.

Here is a book filled with important information yet it so readable that it is hard to put down. You feel Carr’s love for her subject yet she is not afraid to criticize him and the artist comes across to us as if he is yet alive even though he has been dead for over 20 years. Carr met Wojnarowicz during the heyday of the art scene in the East Village of the 80’s right after she began her career with the Village Voice. “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

Carr writes beautifully in crystal clear short sentences and even though the biography is written linearly, it never bores—the opposite, in fact—it made me want o know more. Wojnarowicz led a contradictory and complicated life and Carr handles everything with great style. This is not only a biography of the artist; it is a history of the 70’s and 80’s, the AIDS epidemic, the art scene and censorship. While the artist is at the center of the book and the focus is on him, this is the story of those of us who lived at the same time.

 “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

This is the intense story of a complex author during a devastating time.