For those who don’t know, eighty-sixed ordinarily means expelled from a bar. In David B. Feinberg’s novel of the same name, it refers to those who are being expelled from life by AIDS. The book seems to have been written to show that a superficial, snotty man can remain true to himself throughout the AIDS crisis by continuing to be superficial and snotty.
He seems to believe that he has been changed by the illness and deaths of his former tricks, but, no, he’s unpleasant throughout. If this book was written to make readers think a lot of vacuous gay men have gotten AIDS so good riddance, then it succeeds admirably.
Narrator B. J. Rosenthal tells about his many tricks, all of whom somehow are never good enough for the acid-tongued main character. If he’s sexually attracted to one, you can be sure he’ll bad-mouth this character later when the man puts on a pound or two. There is little or no plot as these various tricks parade before the reader, and thus all that holds the reader’s interest is the personality of the storyteller, but the man is so repellent that the only possible response is, “Why am I stuck in this book with this awful human being?”
The book is advertised as a black comedy about AIDS. If only it were! Instead, it’s full of tired and sophomoric jokes. It’s set in New York City and presumably should be sophisticated and ahead of the rest of us. But there is nothing about anything in this book, including AIDS and gay humor, that hasn’t been done better somewhere else.
It is full of the de rigueur preoccupations of New York and its citizens and presumably that’s the main reason it was published. Maybe it was guilt about doing “something” on AIDS.
The real problem is that this is an amateur first novel that commits most of the sins of the first novel. It should not be told in the first person, because the author doesn’t have enough control over the persona.
The “hero” goes on and on, telling everything from his bowel movements to his grandmother’s eating habits to his difficulty of firing an employee, with absolutely no sense that all this needs to be processed and re-shaped and made meaningful to other people. Any course in basic creative writing would make the author get control of his material. A certain glibness of language is not enough.
The novel makes another fundamental error too: not fully describing the different characters or distinguishing them. When they return to the story later, presumbly for our concern and sympathy, they are merely names (Richard, Joey, Bob, whoever) vague tricks bobbing around in a sea of names. Feinberg shows little skill at making us believe in his characters; it’s like those people who tell you about soap opera characters you don’t know: “Paul has a terminal illness! Will Mary desert him?” Who cares? The reader has to be brought into a book and made to believe in the characters to care about them.
“Eighty-Sixed” is a rare thing among published novels. Except for fleeting moments here and there near the very end, the reader grows more and more removed from the characters as the book progresses and wants only to get away from them.
Books like this get written all the time, but usually are edited or re-written or turned down. Somehow this one sneaked through. Feinberg no doubt will disown it years from now when he writes better books.
The conclusion of “Eighty-Sixed”
“ ‘B. J., remember how I told you about my complexion? How my acne gets infected, and I get scared, and I go to my dermatologist just to make sure it’s not KS?’
“ ‘Come on, Gordon, this isn’t funny. Say ‘J. K.’ like you always do.’
“ ‘Well,’ he continues, ‘last month he took a biopsy.’
“ ‘Oh, my God.’
“ ‘You know, it’s sort of like coming out again. It takes a while until I feel comfortable letting someone know.’
“It’s only KS, I think to myself. If it was PCP, he’d be a dead duck. KS, they’ve been known to last as long as five years. There could be a cure in five years. There has to be a cure!
“ ‘Sure. Whatever you say. Are you feeling all right now?’
“ ‘I’m nursing a cold. I haven’t lost any weight or gotten any other symptoms, if that’s what you mean. I feel perfectly fine. I saw someone from GMHC. This woman taught me how to use makeup that covers up the lesions on my face. I only have a few now, though I’ve got some on my leg, too.’ He coughs again. ‘Well, I’ve got an appointment with my attorney for this afternoon. I guess I’d better be going for now.’
“ ‘OK.’ I’m practically choking. ‘I’m real sorry. Stay well,’ I say.
“ ‘Yeah, sure. Talk to you later.’
“ ‘Good-bye.’ We hang up.
“It begins as a gentle rain. Just a drop, for each illness, each death. And with each passing day it gets worse. Now a downpour. Now a torrent. And there is no likelihood of its ever ending.”