QUEER AND LOATHING Rants and Raves Of a Raging AIDS Clone By David B. Feinberg Viking. 275 pp. $22.95
THERE'S NOTHING funny about AIDS. That's why so many HIV-positive people make jokes about it.
"I would probably literally go mad if I tried to deal with AIDS at face value, without the filter of humor," writes the late David Feinberg in Queer and Loathing: Rants and Raves of a Raging AIDS Clone, a collection of speeches and magazine articles. Feinberg, author of the novels Eighty-Sixed and Spontaneous Combustion, here shrieks, sneers, rails, lashes out and cracks bad jokes -- often in the same sentence. Hybridizing the styles of Hunter S. Thompson, Fran Lebowitz and Judith Martin, he carves out his own particular sub-sub-sub-genre: "gay Jewish humor for HIV-positive men whose T-cell counts hover around 200."
Those who aren't gay, Jewish or HIV-positive might also enjoy this caustic collection, though it's sure to baffle some and leave others squirming. First, there are all the AIDS-related acronyms, a bewildering alphabet soup of maladies and pharmaceuticals -- PCP, KS, MAI, CMV, AL721, AZT, CD4, FLT, IVGG, d4T, ddi, ddC, etc. Then there's Feinberg's style, a genital-warts-and-all approach that will no doubt discomfit those more accustomed to "uplifting" treatments of AIDS like the movies "Philadelphia" and "Longtime Companion." In real life, Feinberg assures us, an HIV sero-conversion isn't followed by sprouting a halo. This is a man who says, "Writing is 1 percent perspiration and 99 percent procrastination ... . I'm sure I'll never commit suicide, because it would take me too long to write the proper note."
Feinberg strews these sorts of pointed bon mots with enraged abandon. Regarding the red-ribbon movement, he sneers, "Leave it to some design queens to transform a plague into a fashion statement." On alternative and holistic therapies: "I prefer Tic Tacs or Toblerones." And, having offended some teenagers on a bus who were discussing the Meaning of Life, he apologizes: "I was only trying to be rude."
These poisonous little asides help pole one through the repetitious patches, of which there are plenty. Like many collections of magazine articles, Queer and Loathing is a little less than the sum of its parts. Some of the pieces, like the lengthy opener about the 1988 takeover of the Food and Drug Administration by ACT UP, read like history. Most of the articles conclude with a few extraneous (and dull) paragraphs on how they came to be printed. And Feinberg, like Lebowitz, is inordinately fond of dry, wry lists of epigrams ("Notes on Sex," "100 Ways You Can Fight the AIDS Crisis"). Like Lebowitz's lists, Feinberg's are a batch of mixed nuts; one picks through the peanuts in search of the occasional cashew.
Worst of all, Feinberg falls into the trap of many a performance artist: He finds his own body endlessly fascinating -- certainly more fascinating than his audience does. By the end of Queer and Loathing, I knew more about his bleeding gums, post-nasal drip and crab lice than I wanted to.
Much better are the sections dealing with the bizarre fringes of the AIDS landscape. Those unfamiliar with the scene might think that Feinberg is making some of this stuff up. He's not. There is a company marketing designer cremation urns for gay men, and Feinberg quotes the press release to devastating effect: "By offering the privacy of at-home catalog shopping, LifeStyle Urns ... serves those who are ill with AIDS." And a counseling center in Southern California really did send out a fundraising appeal with the slogan "AIDS has improved the quality of my life" on the envelope.
THIS ISN'T laughing through your tears material; it's laughing through your bile, and, oddly enough, some of the most affecting passages occur when Feinberg doesn't have the strength left to laugh. At one point, reeling from the death of another friend that day, he visits his friend Luis in the hospital. When Feinberg gets to the hospital, he is told that Luis, too, has "expired."
"He had expired. Like a library book," Feinberg writes, and in that crystalline moment we feel the loss of hundreds of thousands of others who have also "expired."
But in Queer and Loathing, sentiment is always cut with sarcasm and corrosion. In his last essay, Feinberg concludes, "Thank you for indulging me in my personal Portrait of the Artist as a Young Diseased Jew Fag Pariah," reminding us again that, when you're fighting an enemy like AIDS, sometimes the best defense is a little offensiveness.
Kevin Allman lives in New Orleans. His novel "Tight Shot" will be published this winter.
CAPTION: The late David B. Feinberg, author of "Queer and Loathing"