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Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration

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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 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.

288 pages, Paperback

First published May 7, 1991

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About the author

David Wojnarowicz

22 books203 followers
David Wojnarowicz was a gay painter, photographer, writer, filmmaker, performance artist, and activist who was prominent in the New York City art world of the 1980s.

He was born in Red Bank, New Jersey, and later lived with his mother in New York City, where he attended the High School of Performing Arts for a brief period. From 1970 until 1973, after dropping out of school, he for a time lived on the streets of New York City and worked as a farmer on the Canadian border.

Upon returning to New York City, he saw a particularly prolific period for his artwork from the late 1970s through the 1980s. During this period, he made super-8 films, such as Heroin, began a photographic series of Arthur Rimbaud, did stencil work, played in a band called 3 Teens Kill 4, and exhibited his work in well-known East Village galleries.

In 1985, he was included in the Whitney Biennial, the so-called Graffiti Show. In the 1990s, he fought and successfully issued an injunction against Donald Wildmon and the American Family Association on the grounds that Wojnarowicz's work had been copied and distorted in violation of the New York Artists' Authorship Rights Act.

Wojnarowicz died of AIDS on July 22, 1992. His personal papers are part of the Downtown Collection held by the Fales Library at New York University.

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 328 reviews
Profile Image for mark monday.
1,620 reviews4,959 followers
October 28, 2011
this abrasive, masterfully written, self-eviscerating, entirely unsentimental memoir is one that is practically boiling over with anger and lust and menace. it was an influential book in its own place and time... much like wojnarowicz's equally visceral yet haunting art. the free-flowing, stream of conscious writing recounts the author's life, his dreams, ambitions, failures, life on the streets, life with men, and - quite memorably - his dark and vindictive fantasies of vengeance on those who would limit the freedom of queers and treat the aids community as anathema. best of all, running through it all: a warm, glowing seam of compassion and tenderness, particuarly for those who are awkward, weak, physically imperfect, alienated, rootless, out of balance: the un-beautiful.

back in college, this was considered a profound work of art by me and my small distaff group of literary friends (i wonder what happened to them all?)...i also remember trying to explain this author and his impact on me to other, closer, yet more fratty and mainstream friends. to no avail. they could understand and appreciate alan moore or herman hesse but apparently wojnarowicz was too intense for them, too queer. all they could focus on was the fact that one of his works became the cover of a U2 album. ah well. perhaps this book is destined to mainly be appreciated by queers who are impacted by aids and those who live and breathe outsider politics.

outside of this work and his various art pieces, the author can be viewed literally sewing his mouth shut in the unsettling gonzo provocation Silence=Death by rosa von praunheim (agent provocateur for gay rights in germany) - a video which also features the equally seminal keith haring and allen ginsberg, as well as some emotional aids quilt commentary and a painfully resonant deathbed testimonial.

david wojnarowicz, you were a beautiful human being. you may be gone but will hopefully never be forgotten!
Profile Image for Michael.
657 reviews968 followers
May 30, 2019
Expansive and enraged, Close to the Knives sketches a surreal portrait of life in New York at the height of the AIDS epidemic. The memoir gathers together a series of searing essays that roam among a wide range of topics, from the author’s traumatic childhood to the American state’s network of oppression. In ethereal prose, Wojnarowicz lends testimony to the destruction of a subculture, while reflecting on the roles addiction, art, and community play during an epidemic. The work’s interested in not just documenting marginalized experience but also self-consciously questioning what it means to represent such subjects. Ceaselessly experimenting with perspective, the author approaches similar ideas, memories, and relationships from different angles across essays, lending a sense of ambivalence and uncertainty to his work. Well worth revisiting regularly.
Profile Image for Kenny.
485 reviews816 followers
December 15, 2022
Darkness has completely descended onto the landscape and I stood up and stretched my arms above my head and I wondered what it would be like if it were a perfect world. Only god knows. And he is dead.
Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration ~~ David Wojnarowicz


David Wojnarowicz, a key figure of the 1980s art movement that flowered in the pavement cracks of New York’s pre-gentrified East Village, died of AIDS in 1992 at age 37.

Wojnarowicz was a writer as much as a visual artist. Not only had he written multiple publications; language and literary influences recur in his paintings, photography and films. Texts recited by him demonstrate a captivating ability to artistically express his passion, engagement as well as his rage with words and his voice. David Wojnarowicz has been an icon in the gay community for over 40 years.


Wojnarowicz's work has no easy definition: part memoir, part social commentary on America during the AIDS crisis, part hallucinatory fiction and also a radical vision of what being queer might mean. On top of this, the prose is stunning in both senses—glamorous and a hard electric shock.

Close to the Knives paints a portrait of America under siege by AIDS and the Reagan administration. I feel that I’m caught in the invisible arms of government in a country slowly dying beyond our grasp. Wojnarowicz could have been writing about tRump's America.

Wojnarowicz never fails to tell the reader hard emotional truths about culture and class, Some of us are born with the crosshairs of a rifle scope printed on our backs or skulls. Sometimes it’s a matter of thought, sometimes activity, but most times its color. This book isn’t just a series of impassioned essays about the evils of big government and homogenized culture; it delves into the personal ~~ real and imagined ~~ history of Wojnarowicz’s life. It gets gritty, twisted and joyful by turns.

Wojnarowicz is a master craftsman of language. He turns out beautiful sentence after beautiful sentence, …small sparks of airplanes in the late blue and yellow and these black pills stirring like small bees in my stomach.

He also has a deft hand for capturing a sense of place, whether that be driving through a Southwestern desert or a having video booth sex in NYC with strangers. His descriptive prose is exacting brushstrokes on the page ~~ Outside the windows the river light turned from blues to grays to flashes of rain.

Close to the Knives resonates as much today as it did 30 years ago. I keep coming back to this book even though I finished it days ago. Passages like Americans can’t deal with death unless they own it. If they own it, they celebrate it, like in the air force base museum to the atomic bomb wake me up to the fact that monolithic-America is still alive and hungry and dangerous.


In a post-Obama America, with increasing visibility for queer and transgendered people, queers feel safer ~~ but are they? Some of Wojnarowicz’s ideas about fringe and outsider culture may be hard to grasp for people coming up and coming out in a same-sex marriage world, but in this post-queer world, Close to the Knives becomes essential reading. Wojnarowicz will not fail to upset you, get you angry or move you to tears.


Profile Image for Thomas.
1,402 reviews8,129 followers
February 8, 2020
A powerful and vivid memoir about life in New York during the AIDS epidemic. I feel privileged having grown up as a gay man in the 21st century without much awareness of the AIDS epidemic, so reading Close to the Knives provided much needed context for the violence and stigma queer people experienced at the hands of the state. I most appreciated David Wojnarowicz’s boldness and honesty; he's unafraid to directly criticize the state and the government for not protecting its LGBTQ+ members. He writes about the emotional and physical toll of losing his own health to a preventable illness as well as the grief that accompanies seeing his friends pass away. He also celebrates the joy and resiliencies of the queer community in the face of oppression, our capacity for connection even when those in power try to put us down.

I give this book four stars because to be honest at times I didn’t really comprehend what was happening? I appreciate the Wojnarowicz’s experimental, visceral writing style, though at certain points of the book, especially in the beginning when he wrote about his sexual relationship, I felt disconnected from his narrative because I struggled to comprehend what was happening, or I felt that certain areas – especially his sexual relationships – came across as a bit overwritten. Overall, however, I enjoyed this book for its beautiful protesting spirit, one in which I hope the queer community continues to embrace today.
Profile Image for Paul.
1,146 reviews1,909 followers
February 27, 2022
Not a cosy or easy read as the subtitle indicates: A memoir of disintegration. Wojnarowicz died of AIDS at 37: he was an artist, writer and photographer. There is a memorable photo of him wearing a jacket with the following on the back:
“If I die of AIDS – forget burial – just dump my body on the steps of the FDA”
This is a memoir, it’s autobiographical in a variety of forms, including essays. It reflects Wojnarowicz’s own childhood with an abusive and violent father, his living on the streets, hustling, selling his body, the lives (and deaths) of his friends
(“piece by piece, the landscape is eroding and in its place I am building a monument made of feelings of love and hate, sadness and feelings of murder”.)
and of course his sex life, which is fairly prominent. As a gay man he charts the beginning of AIDS and the reactions of politicians and those in power, including Christian fundamentalists (there are some quotes from them which are particularly vile).
The whole is visceral, violent, tender and very angry:
“I want to throw up because we’re supposed to quietly and politely make house in this killing machine called America and pay taxes to support our own slow murder, and I’m amazed that we’re not running amok in the streets and that we can still be capable of gestures of loving after lifetimes of all this.”
There is a good deal about the reactions of society and particularly the silence of the government during the 1980s and attitudes towards those with AIDS:
“Dismissal is policy in America. … If there is homelessness in our streets it is the fault of those who have no homes — they chose to live that way. If there is a disease such as AIDS it is somehow the fault of those who contract that disease — they chose to have that disease. If three black men are shot by a white man on a subway train — somehow they chose to be shot by that man. … Most people tend to accept this system of the moral code and thus feel quite safe from any terrible event or problem such as homelessness or AIDS or nonexistent medical care or rampant crime or hunger or unemployment or racism or sexism simply because they go to sleep every night in a house or apartment or dormitory whose clean rooms or smooth walls or regular structures of repeated daily routines provide them with a feeling of safety that never gets intruded up on by the events outside.”
This quote relates to being at the death bed of a close friend:
“We all turned to the bed and his body was completely still; and then there was a very strong and slow intake of breath and then stillness and then one more intake of breath and he was gone. … I tried to say something to him staring into that enormous eye. If in death the body’s energy disperses and merges with everything around us, can it immediately know my thoughts? But I try and speak anyway and try and say something in case he’s afraid or confused by his own death and maybe needs some reassurance or tool to pick up, but nothing comes from my mouth. This is the most important event of my life and my mouth can’t form words and maybe I’m the one who needs words, maybe I’m the one who needs reassurance and all I can do is raise my hands from my sides in helplessness and say, “All I want is some sort of grace.” And then the water comes from my eyes.”
Wojnarowicz is impossible to categorise and does not fit easily into any boxes. The early part of the book is part travelogue, part the journal of an active and diverse sex life. There is a vitality to this writing, but it is also heartbreaking. It isn’t just those with AIDS who have been isolated and persecuted, we continue to do it to all sorts of groups.
I make no apology for closing with an extended quote from near the end of the book:
“David … you know that friend of mine in Kentucky? Well, I got a call from a friend of mine who just got back from being down there. She said he was getting way out of it … I mean like … he had lost about fifty to seventy-five percent of his body weight and they were having to transfuse him once a week. He was down, he couldn’t walk at all. He was being carried around by his family, in a wheelchair, and he had to go to hospital every day also because of DHPG transfusions, because he was becoming blind from C.M.V. retinitis. So … uh … he would spend most of the mornings in the hospital and then the afternoons he would spend resting at this house they had. Then he had a grand-mal seizure … and he was just like – you know – convulsing like crazy … I never seen one of those: I only heard … and uh … you know – he became all different colors … and …uh … was just gasping for breath and finally they were able to sedate him somehow so that the seizure ended … and … uh … I think after being there just one or two nights, he was deteriorating – his fever went up very high and he was really kind of delirious all of the time. They were giving him a lot of morphine. They had sent him home from the hospital; they stopped all the treatments and everything like that because they felt that this was just like … “Why torture him any more?” And … uh … at one point – finally these two people – a friend and a family member – after he had a small seizure and was in a semicoma – they just decided to put a pillow over his face … you know … do that … and there was no resistance or anything that they could tell … and … uh … I think they made a very courageous decision.”
This is an important and vital book.
Profile Image for Alexander.
Author 25 books1,610 followers
December 28, 2007
This book altered me forever---my politics, my sentences, my sensibility, my sense of what I wanted from life and from existence, from my country, from what it could mean to 'have politics', or to 'have sex'---everything. Afterward everything was different. And I was glad.

Relieved, even.

Also, I have a signed copy I got when I was a store clerk at A Different Light Books in San Francisco in the late 80s.
Profile Image for Vartika.
343 reviews582 followers
February 8, 2021
Essential Reading | 4.5 stars

In calling the chopped-up, raging prose of this autobiography-by-way-of-essays a "memoir of disintegration," artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz was not playing around. Close to the Knives is a haunting, visceral, and often labyrinthine document of the undocumented: the AIDS epidemic, nuclear chauvinism, the rise of neoliberalism, and the devastating cruelty worked by the social and political institutions of power throughout the 80s to terrorise and marginalise the silenced and the unwanted; era-defining injustices that have been papered over in popular memory with rainbow brite and nostalgic dance hits.

Published in 1991; at the height of AIDS denial and a few months before Wojnarowicz's own death of AIDS-related complications at the age of 37; the disjointed, jagged essays in Close to the Knives use personal experiences, queer desire, grief and radical honesty to express the disorientation of growing up and surviving amidst the state-sponsored hypocrisy and hollowness of contemporary American ‘values.’
"My queerness was a wedge that was slowly separating me from a sick society"
Wojnarowicz's text opens with an essay about an adolescence where neglect, abuse, homelessness and prostitution drove him to hallucinations, and dives headfirst into a reality driven by grief and rage and hunger; by the degeneracy and lies of the family, the suburb, the Church, and the State. It is a manifesto against the silencing of minorities that questions the "pre-invented world" of the "one-tribe nation" that promises a life of security and support only to those who embrace its lies, illusions, and "hatred of diversity." In using language as a weapon, Close to the Knives is a raw and lucid statement of determination. It is gripping and beautiful and its violence speaks power to that which surrounds us all.

But most of all, it is the testament of a gay man coming to terms with his own mortality and with the deliberately hastened death of entire communities of dissent and difference. While writing of the violent rage this brought about, Wojnarowicz writes also of the overwhelming grief, the anger of how normalised these deaths had become, like "passing a dead bird in the street and all you can do it is acknowledge it and move on."

Today, at a time when Pride often devolves into a purely aesthetic act, we tend to forget just how difficult things once were, and what our lives of easy visibility are really built on. In the title essay of this volume, Wojnarowicz writes, burning with urgency, about his ex-lover, friend, and mentor Peter Hujar's last days and the various vulnerabilities and waves of hopelessness they went through. In the penultimate essay of the volume; where he shifts between multiple perspectives to investigate the suicide of an acquintance that rattled him amidst the numbness of the epidemic; it is a different kind of compulsion to death he tries to grapple with.

Today, 30 years later, the conservatism, neglect, and manufactured lies Wojnarowicz rails against are resurgent. One realises that the repetition between the essays, like the refrain in the postscript—"Smell the flowers while you can"—is a deliberate act of forcefulness. For some, this book could be life-changing; for others, a reminder that we have so much worth fighting for. Close to the Knives will radicalise the reader and invigorate the fight in them not on the weight of theory, nor that of mere emotion, but on the essence of living:
“With all these occurrences of death facing me, I thought about issues of freedom. If government projects the idea that we, as people inhabiting this particular land mass, have freedom, then for the rest of our lives we will go out and find what appear to be the boundaries and smack against them like a heart against the rib cage. If we reveal boundaries in the course of our movements, then we will expose the inherent lie in the use of the word freedom.
I want to keep breathing and moving until I arrive at a place where motion and strength and relief intersect. I don't know what's ahead of me in the course of my life and this civilization. I just don't feel I have reached the necessary things inside my history that would ease the pressure in my skull and in my future and in my present. It is exhausting, living in a population where people don't speak up if what they witness doesn't directly threaten them.
Profile Image for Fede.
205 reviews
August 5, 2020
New York in the 80s was Satan's rumpus room.
There were Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Cindy Sherman. There were Julian Schnabel, Jenny Holzer, Jeff Koons, Richard Kern and Lydia Lunch, along with hundreds of other major and minor talents living, loving, working, fucking, dying in museums and slums, cool nightclubs and shooting galleries, fancy restaurants and seedy diners, hotels and ratholes, gentrified avenues and ghettos. There were high-class coke and cheap smack, tycoons building empires and stray kids sniffing glue, Neocon repression and revolutionary enthusiasm, Reaganomics and street gangs. A place of potential and decay just like fin-de-siècle Paris, with the Goncourt brothers recording in their diaries the glories and miseries of a modern world bursting with genius and rotting with syphilis.
Except this time it wasn't syphilis. It was AIDS.
From the mid-80s on death came in a huge, relentless wave. A disease some regarded as a welcome cleansing, a purifying fire that would rid the world of faggots, niggers, junkies and, hopefully, a few anarchoid misfits too - those who had never learnt to hold their tongue and even dared dabble with (degenerate) art. And were now dying like flies. Or rats, if they hadn't managed to become rich and famous in the meantime.
One of them vicious-tongued queers was artist/writer/filmmaker David Wojnarowicz, who lived through the light and darkness of an era of absolute polarities and died of AIDS at the age of 37. An eclectic talent, a homsexual, a man who wanted us to know what it was like to be him and therefore left us a memoir that reads like "Naked Lunch" and sounds like an Iggy Pop song.

Strictly speaking, this book has very little to do with autobiography as such, what with the lack of chronological order and the non-linear narration through fragmented flashbacks and memories. It's rather a collection of expressionist essays about the author's perception of himself and his kind, his life used as a vessel to convey images, emotions and sensations, both real and oneiric. It's an artist's outlook on himself and all those belonging to whatever minorities (racial, sexual, ideological) are struggling to survive in late 20th century USA; on the feeling of being robbed of all dignity by a system of hatred and planned neglect, overtly advocated or tacitly accepted as a matter of fact.
It's therefore a manifesto against silence: it was indeed silence that allowed AIDS to spread all over the world. Silence like a shroud in which the dead were wrapped before being thrown in society's trashbin.

These essays are heterogeneous, though not uneven in quality.
Wojnarowicz's is an account of street wanderings and road trips, with gorgeous descriptions of the American landscapes; of musings on architecture and art; of heartrending stories of friends and lovers dying of AIDS; of memories (the abusive family, the adolescence spent whoring in New York); of clandestine encounters with strangers - in toilets, truck cabins, motel rooms, dilapidated warehouses... the places where the law confines all sexuality deemed unacceptable.
The underworld of paedophiles, hustlers, winos and queers of his early teens was indeed bound to become part of his adulthood, at the core of his creativity and need to unveil the dark side of the American Dream - all those who are forgotten or deliberately left behind. Just have a look at Wojnarowicz's famous series of photographs "Rimbaud in New York" (1978-79): b/w portraits of a guy wearing an Arthur Rimbaud paper mask on his face posing in subway cars, cafes, industrial areas, rundown apartment blocks and warehouses; standing, leaning against a wall, pissing, doing heroin or just sitting, the mask staring expressionlessly at the camera. Those pictures depict the very same environment in which Wojnarowicz grew up, the only one he truly cherishes - because that hell was the only place where he could be himself. Among those perverts and bums he was allowed to be the way he was. Surrounded by a violence that, if anything, was not repressive; dealing with a society that was beastly but not malignant.

Wojnarowicz's writing is beautiful, explicit without ever being gross. His vision shifting from lucidity to hallucination, each of these texts encompasses the whole range of literary possibilities by alternating languages and styles. He talks about inner vision and mind-numbing television, filthy slums and blue skies, beauty and Kaposi's sarcoma. But then again, it's an artist's writing, the work of a man gifted with a heightened perception of the world and of himself.
And it's politically, or rather morally charged too. In fact some of these essays are among the most informative writings I've ever come across with regards to AIDS and 20th-century homophobic paranoia: the carefully orchestrated campaigns aiming to prevent the funding of medical research, the anti-gay legal system, the instrumental use of fear and prejudice. They spare nothing to the reader, including facts and statistics that are hardly ever talked about.
Which is quite obvious, since Wojnarowicz's aim is to turn language - either literary or visual - into a weapon to finally give voice to the voiceless, vibility to the invisible. One must bear in mind that he himself was a homosexual, got AIDS, lost friends and lovers and eventually died of it; it's first-hand witness he provides is with, hence the urgency of his message.
He knew what he was talking about and wanted us to know, too.

One is not supposed to 'enjoy' this book.
On the contrary, one's supposed to feel uncomfortable with it, with the world it sheds light on - and with its author too, if that's what it takes for the reader to open his eyes and start thinking.
Profile Image for emily.
340 reviews200 followers
June 9, 2022
Wojnarowicz. Oh my days. Makes me want to scream, and/but also eat some fluffy marshmallows so I won't cry about it. The writing, oh the writing is absolutely fucking glorious. A proper RTC later. Considering this was given to me by one of my dearest, this book deserves more stars than all the stars adorning in the night skies.
Profile Image for Jonathan.
912 reviews925 followers
January 13, 2014
Essential reading for anyone (and that should be all of you) remotely interested in the early days of the AIDS crisis and in some excellent, angry, powerfully erotic prose. I have read a lot of LGBT literature over the years, and have no idea how I managed to miss this one.
Profile Image for Michael.
42 reviews
July 12, 2008
I really didn't know what to expect with this book, but found it unsettling for many reasons. It is primarily a memoir of Wojnarowicz's life in the 80s during the height of the onset of the AIDS crisis. It is set in NYC and mostly in the East Village. I lived there too then and Wojnarowicz and I ran in the same circles. I recognized some of the people that he was talking about even though he had changed the names. It is powerfully written for the most part and there is no question that it brought up many memories for me, not all of them particularly pleasant. It reminded me of the fear and anger of those days. It reminded me of a lot of people long gone and a lot of the outrageous things that people in the government and in religious organizations said about AIDS and gay people at the time and of all the infuriating actions/inactions of the same people. I was pretty good friends with at least three of the people that were in Wojnarowicz's band, "Three Teens Kill Four" but I never knew him and the book made me wish that I had. There are times when he is just raging in a real early ACT-UP manner. This is when his writing is the weakest. There are many incredibly written parts where he is poetic and hard-hitting at the same time. In the end, though I am glad I read the book, it may have been too soon and the wounds of those years still too raw. I would reccommend this book to anyone who is curious about life in NYC's burgeoning East Village in the 80s, that along with the West Village was perhaps ground zero of the AIDS crisis in NY.
Profile Image for Peter Landau.
868 reviews44 followers
April 3, 2014
How come so few people know who David Wojnarowicz is today? People who should know. I didn't know much about him other than a name I saw around that I couldn't pronounce. I still can't pronounce it, but I'm going to learn how. It's voy-nah-ROH-vitch, according to his NYT obit. That's important.

His memoir is impressionistic, wandering, grammatically loose, but drew me in slowly and then so tight I couldn't escape. Now I want to read everything by him and about him. At first, I was, Ugh, another cruising the zippers of alleyway trade travelogue. More homosexual decadence. Why is it that outlaw literature is soaked in this stuff? I thought. Maybe because "this stuff" is outlawed. I kept reading.

The nonlinear narrative began to form a character in my head, David Wojnarowicz, and I liked him as he raged against the institutional prejudice ignoring and even actively encouraging the burgeoning AIDS crisis, the daily deaths of friends and enemies and everyone it seemed.

He wrote, drew, painted, photographed, whatever, to leave a monument behind of himself at that moment in a world that he was barred from and invisible to. But AIDS gave his life a focus, a sharp point that he could stab into the eye of a monster that was made up of many of us even if we didn't know it. I envied his direction, his righteousness.

The last long section of the book isn't even about him, but a character who would have been lost, was consciously erased by his family, but survives in the recollection of Wojnarowicz and his friends, who he interviews, dreams that he documents and a trip to Mexico and a bullfight that pulls all the frayed threads together and ends with a feeling of awe.
Profile Image for Paul Ataua.
1,245 reviews119 followers
May 19, 2020
I became interested in his art a few years ago. As I found out more about him, I became fascinated by his life. Being someone whose greatest risks include not taking an umbrella when there is a ten percent chance of rain, I am always drawn to characters who lived their lives at the edge, and no one fits that description more than Wojnarowicz - gay , male prostitute, political activist, AIDS sufferer, and so on. I decided on the audiobook version, something I sometimes do with memoirs/ biographies, but It really didn’t work for me. I couldn’t easily get what I wanted from his constant playing with the language, a story not being a story unless it is presented a totally new artistic way. And so I switched to reading, which was better by far, but still not wholly satisfying. Lots of descriptions, zippers being unzipped, mouths being filled, sometimes two or three times an essay, but little focus on thoughts and feelings. A rant that got monotonous at times. There were moments that struck home, but it was a story really worth telling that suffered in the telling.
Profile Image for Jackson.
Author 2 books82 followers
October 17, 2019
There aren't enough stars on Goodreads to give this one; five certainly doesn't do it justice. Close to the Knives is possibly the most powerful book I've ever read, and if I'd had a highlighter handy to mark all the profound quotes and passages I'd like to reference at a later time I'd have turned a third of the book yellow.

My copy has a pullquote on the cover by William S. Burroughs praising Wojnarowicz, and a few of the more critical reviews on Goodreads suggest that it is "disjointed." I was wary going in, and the first 23 pages of the book (the first two very short chapters/essays, "Losing the Form in Darkness" and "In the Shadow of the American Dream") had me worried, as they are indeed disjointed, directionless navel-gazing. I almost gave up, and I'm so glad I didn't.

We are born into a preinvented existence within a tribal nation of zombies and in that illusion of a one-tribe nation there are real tribes. (p. 37)

Close to the Knives is many things.

It is an important, highly emotional historical document written about the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and '90s by someone who was there, on the ground floor, watching his friends die, and ultimately died himself because of it. He savagely outs those in power -- think right-wing politicians and church leaders, primarily male -- as the information-suppressing, bigoted, and hugely evil brutes that they were, and continue to be.

Who knows that the vatican and the catholic archdiocese have issued statements that "it is a more terrible thing to use a condom than to contract AIDS." (p. 160)

During the years of the Reagan administration our president was completely silent about the spread of this epidemic. It took almost eight years just to have a few public posters dealing with AIDS and these posters were only printed in english, as opposed to spanish or any other language. The small AIDS campaign effected by city governments was so unimaginative that it could only state: DON'T ASK FOR AIDS, DON'T GET IT. One doesn't get AIDS by "Asking for it." One contracts AIDS through ignorance and the denial of pertinent information that could be used by people to safeguard their sexual activities. (p. 134)

It is a travelogue that takes you across the United States and through the dregs of New York City in a very specific time, far away from now when the average apartment in Manhattan costs about a million and a half dollars.

It is a laser-focused study and critique of our American society. Our false morals, the blind eye we turn to abuses that do not directly affect us, our perverse relationship with media, our glaring hypocrisies.

Dismissal is policy in America. ... If there is homelessness in our streets it is the fault of those who have no homes -- they chose to live that way. If there is a disease such as AIDS it is somehow the fault of those who contract that disease -- they chose to have that disease. If three black men are shot by a white man on a subway train -- somehow they chose to be shot by that man. ... Most people tend to accept this system of the moral code and thus feel quite safe from any terrible event or problem such as homelessness or AIDS or nonexistent medical care or rampant crime or hunger or unemployment or racism or sexism simply because they go to sleep every night in a house or apartment or dormitory whose clean rooms or smooth walls or regular structures of repeated daily routines provide them with a feeling of safety that never gets intruded up on by the events outside. (p. 150-151)

It is a study of mortality; practically a staring contest with death itself, looking it in the eye and discussing it frankly and directly. In such an emotional set of essays, Wojnarowicz's view of death frequently changes -- sometimes he seems to wish for death, sometimes he seems to want nothing more than to live, if not out of love of life but for feeling that he has much left to accomplish on Earth -- but he deals with it head on, which is more than you can say about many people.

Americans can't deal with death unless they own it. If they own it, they will celebrate it, like in the air force base museum of the atomic bomb, where whole families of camera-toting tourists gather after the required i.d. security checks. In the gray-carpeted rooms, they walk the mazes of portable screens and platforms and enlarged photographs of death and incineration as seen from a discreet distance. The distance is far enough so you can't see the bodies, only the architecture. (p. 35)

It is a personal history. It is a character study of the people in his life, presented as they are, or were. Wojnarowicz can be sentimental and affectionate, but never sugarcoats the faults and activities of his peers.

It is the study of a seedy underworld I'll never be a part of, yet it is also an homage to the preciousness and brevity of every life, and a celebration of the fact that we are here for just a little while -- and that so many of us don't acknowledge that temporariness until we are staring death in the face. He explains what it is like to watch your friends die, one by one; examines how they deal with their lives coming to horrific ends, one after the other.

We all turned to the bed and his body was completely still; and then there was a very strong and slow intake of breath and then stillness and then one more intake of breath and he was gone. ... I tried to say something to him staring into that enormous eye. If in death the body's energy disperses and merges with everything around us, can it immediately know my thoughts? But I try and speak anyway and try and say something in case he's afraid or confused by his own death and maybe needs some reassurance or tool to pick up, but nothing comes from my mouth. This is the most important event of my life and my mouth can't form words and maybe I'm the one who needs words, maybe I'm the one who needs reassurance and all I can do is raise my hands from my sides in helplessness and say, "All I want is some sort of grace." And then the water comes from my eyes. (p. 102-103)

It is one man's story of what it is like to be gay, to endure things that people who are not likely cannot imagine; and though he is one person telling his story, much of what he says is undoubtedly experienced by many others.

I remember when I was eight-and-a-half ... For months I searched the public library for information on my "condition" and found only sections of novels or manuals that described me as either a speedfreak sitting on a child's swing in a playground at dusk inventing new words for faggot...or that people like me spoke with lisps and put bottles up their asses and wore dresses and had limp wrists and every novel I read that had references to queers described them as people who killed or destroyed themselves for no other reason than their realization of how terrible they were for desiring men and I felt I had no choice but to grow up and assume these shapes and characteristics. .. And in every playground, invariably, there's a kid who screamed FAGGOT! in frustration at some other kid and the sound of it resonated in my shoes, that instant solitude, that breathing glass wall no one else saw. (p. 104-105)

It is a lengthy study of a tragic character -- the final 111 pages dedicated solely to his friend Dakota, a gay man and addict who committed suicide, whose parents destroyed all of his art, writing, manuscripts -- everything he left behind that was evidence he ever lived. Even the letters he wrote to Wojnarowicz could not be published due to copyright issues, his parents being the owners of such copyrights.

Suicide is a form of death that contains a period of time before it to which my mind can walk back into and imagine a gesture or word that might tie an invisible rope around that person's foot to prevent them from floating free of the surface of the earth. ... All I see is his absence, a void, a dark smudge in the air where he previously occupied space: "Man, why did you do it? Why didn't you wait for the possibilities to reveal themselves in this shit country, on this planet? Why didn't you fucking go swimming in the cold gray ocean instead? Why didn't you call?" (p. 241)

It is simply too much for me to write about. I just finished the book today, and though it is 276 pages, it feels like the longest book I've ever read because it is so dense. So much righteous anger and rage, so much beauty and sadness. So many harsh truths. The book winds down as Wojnarwicz flashes back and forth between stories of the abuse he endured in childhood, the suicide of his friend, and a bullfight he witnesses in Mexico not long after his AIDS diagnosis.

...the bull's legs jerk out spasmodically, blood issues from its nose and mouth, and it is dead. It excretes a stream of shit from its behind into the pale dust. Smell the flowers while you can. (p. 273)

I can't really formulate a typical "review," and I really don't remember if a book has ever left me feeling so overwhelmed upon completion as this one. I've kind of written a lot here, mostly quotes directly from the book, but it feels as if I've written nothing. Hopefully enough to convince those who've read this review to pick up the book. I'd like to hand out a copy to anyone with a heart, and maybe some to those who don't who might grow one Grinch-like; I believe it is an essential read.
Profile Image for Aonarán.
110 reviews58 followers
June 24, 2014
I read this book in a completely scattered order. It seems like it's a collection of different essays he wrote for different audiences, so reading it that way worked well for me.

At times Wojnarowicz seems completely damning everything - the family, the state, civilization, police, doctors, etc etc - but at other times says we need to legislate this or that change - perhaps a reflection of writing for different audiences.

Something about his writing that I can't quite put into words really spoke to me. Even the mediocre parts completely pulled me in. And at his most nihilistic or romantic I was completely enthralled. The best parts are some how a smooth balance of theoretical and emotional stimulation that I kept getting lost in.

I'm always interesting in people's personal experiences with death - something we don't often share or when we do it's in very specific, often neutralized ways - and so the backdrop of Wojnarowicz and his friends being sick and dying of AIDS in the 80s really affected me.

I look forward to reading more by Wojnarowicz.



I realized last night while lying in bed thinking about this book that maybe part of what I couldn't put my finger on is Wojnarowics' (total or almost total) lack of sarcasm. There's a great deal of sincerity in this book. I wonder if people my age could write about similar events and experiences in their own lives without dismissive one-liners and sarcastic comments...
Profile Image for Allan.
478 reviews67 followers
June 26, 2015
This memoir was published in 1991 by the artist David Wojnarowicz, and is a pretty difficult read. It's a very angry book made up of chapters about different aspects of life and society at that time, and given the author's personal circumstances (a gay man who has contracted AIDS) one can understand why.

He is scathing about the US federal government's, NYC administration's and Catholic church's lack of action in tackling the virus, both through education and treatment programmes. He details the lengths some sufferers go to to try to find their own cures. He talks about the prejudice he faces as a gay man, both from those in everyday life and in positions of power and authority. He touches on his past, his relationship with his father, his life as a hustler in Times Square, sexual experiences he has had. The longest piece is his reflection on the suicide of a friend.

As you can tell, not a book to read for light relief. I was aware of some of the background re US govt inaction towards the AIDS crisis already, having read Randy Shilts' excellent and disturbing account of the time, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, but this is a much more personal read. I did find it a little disjointed at times, but am glad that I read it.

Finishing it as I have on the day that the US Supreme Court ruled that same sex marriage is a legal right across the country, it puts things into perspective about how hard life was for men like Wojnarowicz-one can only be thankful that we live in a generally more tolerant society than they did.
Profile Image for Andrew.
1,963 reviews674 followers
September 24, 2021
I became aware of Wojnarowicz in my teens as an early artist to address gay themes and one of the last great East Village bohemians, and and his memoir is as witty and poignant as I would have hoped, the story of a glorious half-lit world first ravaged by disease, Kaposi's sarcomas on the skins of its denizens like marks of the beast, then vilified by Reaganites and pious creeps of the worst order, whether Catholics crossing themselves at the sight of a fucking rubber or jowly Jesse Helms Prods living in fear of their own orgasmic desires. Similar to the best novels of Jean Genet, you find more warmth and humanity than you could ever have imagined in the tulle train of a drag queen muddied in a Downtown New York gutter.
Profile Image for Mel.
379 reviews67 followers
December 9, 2016
Wow! This was a really great book! Much of it (sadly) suddenly pertinent to right now! I could quote something off every page. Parts of this brought back some tough memories and was very hard to read. This author does not try to sugar coat anything, so this is not for the faint of heart. Great writing! Loved it! 5 stars and one of my best reads of 2016. (Probably THE best read of 2016)
Profile Image for Jack Tomascak.
38 reviews14 followers
December 9, 2017
This is the best book I have ever read. Honestly I don't know how to convey to you how critical it is that you read this book.
Profile Image for Chris Flinterman.
131 reviews6 followers
April 14, 2019
A book that has lost none of its urgency. Written beautifully, yet displaying a world that is raw and hidden. An eye opener.
2,154 reviews31 followers
April 27, 2022

The problem with lengthy tracts of stream of consciousness is…well there are many problems. Where do you even start?...I came across this book through a lovely little Argentinian film by the name of “Fin de Siglo (End of The Century)”. My advice to anyone would be to stop reading this review, avoid the first part of this book and watch that movie instead.

“Words are so interesting this way. Words can strip the power from a memory or an event. Words can cut the ropes of an experience. Breaking silence about an experience can break the chains of the code of silence. Describing the once indescribable can dismantle the power of taboo.”

Clearly William Burroughs is a huge influence on this, and there are pretty distinctive elements of Steinbeck and Henry Miller too. Yes there is the odd nice line and thoughtful passage of description but it is totally outweighed by the sheer volume of tedious dross relating to him rambling about his penis, drugs and various bodily functions and other bland and boring drivel.

“It costs millions of dollars to run for president; how much does it cost to hire a madison avenue (sic) ad agency to run a campaign? How much does it cost to make a commercial for television? This is not a democracy.”

But then come the second half and the likes of “The 12 Inch Tall Politician” and “The Suicide of A Guy” really show what he is capable of and we see that he actually is a talented writer with plenty of provocative and worthwhile insights that make you think. So I would skip the first half and certainly recommend the second part.
Profile Image for Michael Dipietro.
138 reviews35 followers
September 25, 2015
I am almost without words for this book. It was incredibly dark and painful to read, and yet extremely seductive. Drilling the same points home over and over about evil people in state and religious drag, effecting a quiet holocaust with their mishandling of AIDS and with constant efforts to make queer people, queer lives and identities invisible.... I began to feel the same desolation and ennui that Wojnarowicz describes in his own experience, so eloquently. The ending is extremely visceral; I can't really remember the last time a book made me want to cry and shit and vomit at the end.
Profile Image for George Ilsley.
Author 13 books209 followers
January 26, 2021
A collection of prose poem essays that are dense, evocative, powerful — and at times unreadable. This memoir has its fans, and was recommended as a document of the early aids epidemic. It is also a document of abuse, addiction, prostitution, life on the street, pointlessness, anger, outrage, and slippery consciousness.

I would have another go at this, when I had a year or two to just read one page at a time.

Having lived through this time, this book was intensely triggering.
Profile Image for Cally Mac.
235 reviews68 followers
April 22, 2017
Less of a memoir, more of an essay collection, with each piece hanging somewhere on the spectrum between personal and political. Most of which were pretty sprawling and adventurous, without too much stringing them together - in a good way. You end up just sinking straight into the prose. It had all the things I liked about the beat gen without all the stuff I really don't.
Profile Image for Anel Mušanović.
284 reviews207 followers
October 2, 2022
Osjećam toliko emocija, pitam se gdje će sve one u meni završiti. Close to the knives je magnum opus Wojnarowicza, umjetnika sa nešto drugačijom percepcijom ovog našeg svijeta.

“I felt like I could have been just a mirror above his sink at home. I felt like I didn't exist for him even though he had searched me out to speak about all this. I realized later that it didn't matter if he did know I was there or not; it was me who was lost.”

Prošlo je dosta vremena od kad sam pročitao nešto ovako lijepo i potresno u isto vrijeme. Radnjom smještena u New Yorku, u prljavim kupatilima, zadimljenim klubovima i mračnim ulicama, knjiga opisuje 80-e godine i početak epidemije AIDS-a. Međutim, ovo djelo je mnogo više od toga. Ovo je priča o životu koji vam je zabranjen, o stvarima koje se čine nedostižne i priča o čovjeku koji vam pokušava dokazati kako je lijepo biti živ dok iz poglavlja u poglavlje uništava dijelove svoje duše.

“I'm getting closer to the coast and realize how much I hate arriving at a destination. Transition is always a relief. Destination means death to me. If I could figure out a way to remain forever in transition, in the disconnected and unfamiliar, I could remain in a state of perpetual freedom.”

Pročitao sam ovu rečenicu i ostao da buljim u list papira nekoliko minuta. Iako prvenstveno sliakr i fotograf, Wojnarowicz prelijepo koristi pero i njegove rečenice su skrojene od najljepših riječi. Svaka je tako divna u strukturi, svaka je tako poražavajuće realna i brutalna sa svojim sadržajem. Doista unikatan način izražavanja koji funkcioniše i koji će vas iz stranice u stranicu oduševiti.

“I wished for years and years that I could separate into ten versions of myself in order to give each person I loved a part of myself forever.”

Sama knjiga sadrži doista potresne slike, mnogo zlostavljanja koje postaje sve gore kako knjiga ide svom kraju, do te mjere da možda najveće zlostavljanje dolazi onda kada čitaš o tome kako likovi počinju da uživaju u njemu misleći da je to nešto što zaslužuju. Djelo je jedna velika crna fotografija ispunjena prazninom, jedan nihilistički odsjaj rođen u vapaju za srećom. Tema homoseksualnosti je centralna stvar ove knjige koju autor istražuje do najmanjih detalja, pokušavajući da razumije ono gadno u ljudima i njihovu narav. Najčudnija stvar je to kako je autor predstavio te stvari kroz svoj izražaj tako da sam u jednom trenutku pomislio kako je ovo možda najbolja napisana stvar koju sam pročitao. Svaka rečenica je očaravajuća.

“In loving him, I saw a cigarette between the fingers of a hand, smoke blowing backwards into the room and sputtering planes diving low through the clouds. In loving him, I saw men encouraging each other to lay down their arms. In loving him, I saw small-town laborers creating excavations that other men spend their lives trying to fill. In loving him, I saw moving films of stone buildings; I saw a hand in prison dragging snow in from the sill. In loving him, I saw great houses being erected that would soon slide into the waiting and stirring seas. I saw him freeing me from the silences of the interior life.”

Mislim da ova knjiga može postati previše u jednom trenutku, nije nešto što možeš tek tako uzeti na čitanje. Mislim i to da drugačiji stil koji je možda više kao jedan veliki esej može oduzeti od doživljaja na momente. Ali doista mislim da je djelo koje treba pročitati, studirati i koje treba da se cijeni zbog vremena u kom je nastalo i tema o kojima govori.

“Smell the flowers while you can.”
Profile Image for Easton Smith.
276 reviews9 followers
November 26, 2019
Before I tell you why you should read this book, I should first say why you shouldn't. It's filled to overflowing with violence of the worst kind; cruelty and abuse and angry, dark ruminations. It's a book will quickly dive into an alleyway to witness a murder, to uncover a deep, rotting trauma. It's a book that takes place in a moldy bathroom stall, in the smoggiest city, the morgue. All of that, and it also has its repetitions (likely a product of it being a collection of previously published work).

But I can't give it less than five stars. I can't not recommend a book that goes to the saddest, most desperate, places and gazes upon them with more love than any politician or banker or cop has ever mustered in their entire life. David Wojnarowiz reminds us that in marginalization there is beauty. Maybe that's the only place it actually resides, outside of nature. He reminds us that a fractured life is not brought back together by money, fame, or self-centeredness, but by solidarity, by a relentless giving. What can I do but give 5 stars to a book that contains the following passage?

"I lean down and find the neckline of his sweater and draw it back and away from the nape of his neck which I probe gently with my tongue. In loving him, I saw a cigarette between the fingers of a hand, smoke blowing backwards into the room, and sputtering planes diving low through the clouds. In loving him, I saw men encouraging each other to lay down their arms. In loving him, I saw small-town laborers creating excavations that other men spend their lives trying to fill. In loving him, I saw moving films of stone buildings; I saw a hand in prison dragging snow from the sill. In loving him, I saw great houses being erected that would soon slide into the waiting and stirring seas."
Profile Image for Mark Hiser.
533 reviews14 followers
June 8, 2021
Let me say from the start, it took me some time to figure how to read this book. Yes, it is a memoir, but the book does not flow from Point A to Point B. In fact, it is a memoir unlike any I have ever read.

Several times I thought I might not finish the book, but then a sentence, an image, would strike my imagination and my heart. It was after this occurred a few times that I understood this is a book of images and I must read it as though I was “reading” a dream or an abstract painting. I realized I had to let those images flow like clouds past my thinking brain and eventually create a storm in my “gut.” I felt like I had to approach the book as a time of meditation, but once I let it inside me, I knew why the New York Times called it one of the “50 Best Memoirs of the Past 50 Years.”

Close to the Knives is about trying to survive when those who hold power in the institutions of our society think you are expendable. It is about the rage that comes with living on the margins of that society.

To read Close to the Knives is to peer into the raw life of someone who decided to be vulnerable and speak his truth in public. For this reason, this is not an easy book to read but is one that even now has power to change the world. (Note: As I read the book, more than once I thought about our society’s response to COVID, too.)

David Wojnarowicz was born in New Jersey in 1954 but came to prominence in New York City as an American painter, photographer, writer, filmmaker, and activist. He died of AIDS complications at the age of 37 in 1992.

As a child, Wojnarowicz and his siblings suffered at the hands of an abusive father. When his mother left his father and moved with her children to New York City, Wojnarowicz attended the New York High School of Music and Art. He also became a male prostitute.

In the late 1970s, he became a prominent figure in the world of New York’s avant-garde artists as he created mixed media works.

In 1987, as his long-time lover, Peter Hujar, lay dying of AIDS complications, Wojnarowicz learned that he, too, was infected with HIV, a diagnosis that—at the time—was a certain death sentence. It was the death of Hujar and his own HIV infection that propelled Wojnarowicz to create artwork that was more political and activist oriented. Afterall, in 1987, HIV/AIDS was still largely ignored—or celebrated—by many persons who were not gay.

His memoir, Close to the Knives, is a collection of essays that tell of the author’s difficult childhood and journey into the art world, and his HIV/AIDS diagnosis. Wojnarowicz rose from a youth marked with drugs, prostitution, homelessness, and abuse to become an artist and activist who spoke truth to power.

Even though this memoir is now thirty years old, in telling his story, the author still speaks for those whose voice is lost at the margins. It is impossible to read this book without thinking about your own politics, religious beliefs, and views of people in poverty, people with diseases, and people on the outskirts. It is impossible to read Close to the Knives without thinking about your own reactions to people unlike you. Even the form the book takes makes it impossible not to think about your own views of literature. In short, if you let the words wash through you, you cannot but be touched at multiple levels by the rawness and honesty of Wojnarowicz’s memoir.

I cannot recommend this book enough. Close to the Knives is about life at the margins and is about suffering and what prolongs it. Ultimately, though, it is a book about a broken world that needs our action and our love.

As I finish these thoughts, I have to say this was a book that “spoke” to me far more than I expected. In fact, it is so full of desires, observations, feelings, sadness, and anger, that I find it impossible to know what to write.

Perhaps it was because I am writing this just as 51% of the adult population in the US has had at least one dose of the COVID vaccine and millions of other people refuse to be inoculated. Perhaps it was because the writing is creative, fresh, raw, vulnerable, and angry. Perhaps it was because the author was a few months older than me but has already been dead for 30 years. Perhaps it was because I still have so much to work through from living through those years and witnessing the current backlash against persons who are LGBTQ+ or on the margins in other ways. Whatever the reason or reasons, this was the “best” book I have read so far this year.
Profile Image for Lex.
22 reviews
January 10, 2008
This book is so important to my understanding of the queer 80's and 90's, in a way I am not even sure is entirely fair. His prose poetry, brilliant conspiracy cum political philosophy, and precious/violent take on sexuality and the body relating to other bodies is a vibrant echo of what was, an what is still vibrating through the haunted house of modern gay history in the US. I love the way he speaks about the Queer who was the bane of the assimilationist gay America that all but won the 90's, but still wanted their hand jobs in the bus station bathroom. The only problem I have is the description of America, as this ham fisted angry midwestern suburbanite characature, but maybe that is my privilege as growing up queer in a fairly socially "tolerant" millinium. I don't want him to not talk about and understand fully his anger, but it's a concept I find throughout his writing, that I try hard not to take on myself because the spseration between rural and suburban realities for radical queers scare me a little....anyway..... I also am very inspired by his refusal to do a complete JT Leroy style tell-all that subjectifies himself to history and the political and social currents of the time, nor does he do the sober recounting of his past with full analysis and distancing logic. Instead he tells it as he goes, philosophizes on LSD, draws us portraits while he has not slept for two weeks, fucks, fights, and writes at the same time. It is fucking awesome, the best way for a memoir to be. Thank you D.W.
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