Eighty-Sixed

How to Get Eighty-Sixed from the Restaurant or Cocktail Lounge of Your Choice

Eschew reservations. Force your way past the maître d’ or the bouncer, insisting that you are “on the list.” Dress inappropriately. Go to Lutèce in inexpert drag; neglect to shave. Leave your fly unzipped. Forget to wear underwear. Ask for complicated cocktails and dispute their execution. Do some target practice by tossing drinks at your companions; avoid clear and colorless beverages, as they seldom leave stains — stick to fruity concoctions. Ask the waiter for detailed explanations of every item on the menu, feigning interest in the recital, and then order a cheeseburger platter. Ask for water repeatedly; pour this into the potted palm behind your table. Be loud and raucous. Carry a ghetto blaster. Send back the house wine. Send back the burgers. Send back the silverware. Send back the check. Casually remove articles of clothing throughout the course of the meal. Insult your companions. Insult the neighboring table. Insult the waiters. Insult the special. Belch loudly between each course. Vomit into the salad plate and announce that now you have room for dessert…(p. 55)

In David B. Feinberg’s 1989 novel Eighty-Sixed, brief instruction guides like this separate the chapters to provide a running high-stress, almost Boschian image of gay male New York City life in the 80s. Each chapter is devoted to a month of a year. Part one is 1980, in which main character B.J. Rosenthal, at twenty-three, is focused on trying to find romance via bars, bathhouses, gyms and other avenues for cruising. B.J. pursues men who don’t reciprocate his interests or affections, making bad choices followed by worse ones. He reveals startling insights into his own fears, efforts to reconcile his identity, and struggle to find his way out of his own patterns, yet his mind is constantly elsewhere or invested in fantasy, and it’s no wonder he spirals:

I wasn’t asking for much. I just wanted someone who was overwhelmingly appealing physically, sexually, and mentally, who told jokes and could always keep me entertained and knew calculus and didn’t go to Studio 54, which once did not admit me even though I had a pass, and read books and lifted weights and was hot enough to pose in a pornographic magazine but wouldn’t for reasons of privacy and wasn’t married to anyone. (p. 12)

This isn’t a glamorous year: B.J. talks about rinsing clean glasses out of habit to clean off the roach droppings he expects in his own apartment, and a significant part of his experience with gastrointestinal amoebiasis is the clinic where this is as normal as papercuts. Meanwhile, when he realizes he can no longer concentrate on school, he gets a job programming in a “structured, high-level language” (not his field of study). Among other things, the book is full of detailed descriptions of life in New York City during this time. But significantly, it’s a very sexual year, for better and for worse.

Part two is in 1986, and where part one’s prologue discussed a priest’s arousal upon hearing sexual confessions, part two opens with the AIDS statistics and scientific progress as of that year. B.J. is now twenty-nine, more financially secure as he mysteriously gets promoted at work, yet personally still unsure of what he is doing with his life and struggling even more with intimacy as AIDS fears increase. It’s a year of watching people diagnosed, of watching people die, of watching people watch people die. And as a historical record it is alternatingly tragic and terrifying:

“I told you about my friend Steven with ARC?”

“Yeah.”

“He’s taking an experimental drug now. The only way to get it in the U.S. is by being on a study. You know what?”

“No.”

“He’s using someone else’s prescription. His doctor just gave it to him, told him not to ask any questions. He said that the guy who it was written for won’t be needing it anymore.”

“He’s dead.” (p. 297)

The book gets into the early victim-blaming that has grown since then: Peter Staley wrote earlier this year in ‘Gay-on-Gay Shaming: The New HIV War‘, that “HIV-related stigma is worse than ever…the worst of HIV stigma comes from my own community: gay men.” But reading this book reminded me how much media I know of about people living with and dying from HIV/AIDS that, like this book, takes place in the 1980s, and how little takes place afterward — even things written afterward still tend to use the 80s as the setting. The disease didn’t end then, and so many circumstances have changed around it, from the increased stigma to the improved medical care to the changing concepts of safe sex and stereotypes around those concepts. I wonder how much of these modern stigmas stem from this idea that HIV/AIDS is something out of the past, that everyone knows better now and is at fault in the event of seroconverting, undeserving of sympathy or compassion. So it’s relevant that, contrary to the implication in Staley’s article linked above, Feinberg shows moralizing and judgement already present back in 1986 (or at least ’89, when this was came out).

Feinberg’s sense of humor, sharp perceptions, and awareness of his own failures in compassion carry this book and make it more than just depressing — make it one of my favorite books, in fact — and it’s a hard, hard read, a meditation on mourning an era as much as a person.

[continued from top:] …Create a catastrophe. Fake a heart attack. Drop a plastic bug into the soup. Mace the waiter. Smoke several stogies after dessert. Pass around a joint while waiting for the check. Use a stolen credit card. Dispute the sales tax. Leave a food stamp for a tip. Use a rubber check. Write a mash note to the waiter on the bill: Be very explicit. Sign the credit-card voucher with disappearing ink. Misplace your coat-check ticket and then harass the coat-check attendant; demand immediate service. Expectorate as you leave. (p. 55)

Page numbers on quotes are from the 2002 Grove Press hardcover.

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