Monday, June 24, 2013

Marion Winik

Marion Winik's books include Highs in the Low Fifties: How I Stumbled through the Joys of Single Living, Telling, First Comes Love, The Lunch-Box Chronicles, and The Glen Rock Book of the Dead, and two volumes of poetry. Her essays and book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Sun, Salon, More, and Newsday. Her commentaries for All Things Considered are collected at She is a professor at the University of Baltimore.

Recently I asked Winik about what she was reading.  Her reply:
I just finished Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz, by Cynthia Carr, a fascinating account of one of the more exceptional characters taken from us by AIDS in a time that is coming to seem, even to those who lived through it, like a long time ago.

I read the book at the recommendation of Tom Beer, the books editor at Newsday; he put it in his top ten of 2012. Beer described the biography as a companion piece to Just Kids, by Patti Smith, her memoir of her passionate friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, and that was enough for me to put this 600+ pager on my list. I'm glad I did.

As the avant-garde art critic for the Village Voice through the 80s and 90s, Cynthia Carr knew the artist/writer/activist Wojnarowicz casually, then became close friends with him the year before he died. Losing him, it seemed, plunged her into the project of recreating him on the page. As Wojnarowicz had put out various different versions of his childhood and coming of age, one of her challenges was to sort through the myths and find the truth. This kind of detective work is one of the things I love about biography.

Beyond that, I appreciated the style, depth, thoroughness and seeming effortlessness of the telling. It's hard to handle a subject as complicated and prickly as Wojnarowicz and get the reader over the rough spots in his personality. I recently read a biography of The Lost Weekend novelist Charles Jackson, and I ended up pretty sick of him and his peccadilloes, and sort of annoyed at the biographer, too. Carr avoids this pitfall entirely -- perhaps because she knew and cared for him so much. We get just how vulnerable and how charismatic he was behind that gruff armor.

As someone who lived in New York in the early 80s, I found the detailed account of the downtown arts scene of that time -- Haring, Basquiat, Nan Goldin, Cookie Mueller, various drag queens -- particularly nostalgic. My brother-in-law was a graffiti artist who died of AIDS a couple of months before Wojnarowicz. And my first husband, a beautiful ice-skater and hairdresser named Tony, followed him in two years later. I wrote our story in a memoir called First Comes Love. So, yeah, it's all pretty close to my heart. Losing him, it seemed, plunged her into the project of recreating him on the page.
Visit Marion Winik's website and read more about Highs in the Low Fifties.

Read Coffee with a Canine: Marion Winik and Beau (December 2009) and Coffee with a Canine: Marion Winik and Beau (June 2013).

--Marshal Zeringue