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Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration

4.45  ·  Rating details ·  2,452 ratings  ·  220 reviews
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 ...more
Paperback, 288 pages
Published May 7th 1991 by Vintage
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Average rating 4.45  · 
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 ·  2,452 ratings  ·  220 reviews

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May 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2019, recs
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 ...more
mark monday
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 w ...more
Feb 08, 2020 rated it really liked it
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 wri ...more
Dec 27, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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.
Feb 08, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 marginalis
Apr 26, 2013 rated it really liked it
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.
May 21, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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, tycoo
Apr 12, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: favorites
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 brough ...more
Peter Landau
Mar 28, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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 c
Paul Ataua
May 19, 2020 rated it it was ok
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/ biographie ...more
Jun 22, 2014 rated it really liked it
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 t
Oct 12, 2014 rated it liked it
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
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)
Callum McAllister
Apr 21, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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. ...more
Jack Tomascak
May 24, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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. ...more
Chris Flinterman
Apr 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: lgbtq, engels
A book that has lost none of its urgency. Written beautifully, yet displaying a world that is raw and hidden. An eye opener.
Easton Smith
Nov 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
George K. Ilsley
Jan 26, 2021 rated it liked it
Shelves: memoir, poetry, gay, fantasy, glbt
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.
Jan 03, 2008 rated it really liked it
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, b ...more
Michael Dipietro
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 ...more
Riotaccordion loeffler
Sep 06, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2020toread
Maybe the best book i've ever read.
fucking and magic
and nihilism.

It's dark.
and so good.
Oct 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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
Kate Savage
Sep 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
A hard and heavy and playful and cutting memoir. The hardest for me: sitting with the drive to violence that leaks out as the last resistance to perpetual state-sanctioned murder. The most rewarding for me: reading this during the COVID pandemic, letting the history of the AIDS epidemic enrich and challenge the way I think about societal and political responses to contagious diseases. Wojnarowicz is credited as inspiring Act Up activists to spread the ashes of their dead loved ones on the White ...more
Elizabeth Smart
Dec 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2020-read
Reading this at this particular moment during another global pandemic is gutting. I wonder how it would make David Wojnarowicz feel to know that the government is failing us all yet again: a more diverse group of people, but for the same reasons— the expendability of the vulnerable. “So many things got so much better, David,” I would tell him, “but so many things got so much worse.”
Connor Murphy
Apr 24, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Reading this felt like bleeding. The raw fury, desperation and, most importantly, the love that radiates from this memoir is overwhelmingly beautiful. It bruises, it shatters, it roars with an intensity that I have experienced in only a handful of books. As I am writing this I am on the verge of tears. I will always remember this book - more than that, it will make itself apparent every day; on transport, in friendships, in romance, as I get up in the morning... in all of these quiet moments, I ...more
Dec 18, 2016 rated it did not like it
Artist and AIDS activist, David Wojnarowicz has written a powerful, angry polemic and memoir, often a graphic one, and I can see from the many reviews that it is a much loved and admired volume. I accept that I am perhaps not the intended reader, but I found little to engage me here and little to relate to. I learnt a lot from it, especially about how the growing AIDS crisis was dealt with at the time and I can understand Wojnarowicz’s anger, but that doesn’t make it good literature. It’s a chal ...more
Jul 08, 2012 rated it it was amazing
“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 we're not running amok in the streets, and that we can still be capable of gestures of loving after lifetimes of all this.”
― David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration
Aug 31, 2017 rated it it was ok
Yes this book is full of some great writing IF you can get back the author's stylistic choices: run-on phrases, run-on sentences., run-on paragraphs, run-on passages, run-on pages, run-on chapters. I think there is some real genius here if you can get past all that. Good luck! ...more
Merritt K.
Feb 25, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Even if you aren't as deeply into the subject matter of 80s/90s gay life in New York as I am, Wojnarowicz's prose is so engrossing that it won't matter. Incredible. ...more
Aug 25, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: pleasure-read
I wouldn't exactly call this a pleasure-read (the shelf I placed it in), more like a necessary read, another one of those stained, yellow paged paperbacks I've moved around with for years, starting and then putting it back, that I finally read. I'd heard about David W. for many years, and was reminded of this book most recently through a review I read of Olivia Laing's book The Lonely City (that I haven't read yet).

The book is a time-capsule, the writing tormented in the best kind of way, not o
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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

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18 likes · 6 comments
“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 we're not running amok in the streets, and that we can still be capable of gestures of loving after lifetimes of all this.” 62 likes
“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.” 53 likes
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