But when the diary in question is that of a (usually dead) artist, excuses are easy to come by. We read for obscure background information, or insight into a particular creative process, or blah, blah, blah. But let's be honest: The hidden motives are almost always made of cruder stuff. What we're really in pursuit of is the image of Sylvia Plath tilting her head into the suffocating oven, or the details of John Cheever's tortured Greco-Roman sexuality. But when it comes to David Wojnarowicz--a man who spent the better part of his 37 years divulging the most explicit details of his harrowing life (and impending death from AIDS), in prose, on canvas, and on film--what are we looking for, exactly?
In the Shadow of the American Dream: The Diaries of David Wojnarowicz, is patched together from 31 journals, written over the course of 20 years. It is immediately obvious that these journals served as a laboratory for Wojnarowicz's high-impact writing style, and that years prior to assuming his role as "the essential '80s East Village artist," famous for multimedia constructions that fused the symbology of capitalism (advertisements, currency) with grainy photographs of blow jobs, he considered himself an author-in-training. It is a misconception that Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (Vintage, 1991), Wojnarowicz's landmark collection of autobiographical prose, appeared out of nowhere. From his teenage years as a Times Square hustler, to his hitch-hiking jaunts across the states, to his first show in SoHo, Wojnarowicz always kept a notebook handy, and was always practicing his chops.
Thanks to editor Amy Scholder, American Dream provides sporadic glimpses of a Wojnarowicz we have never seen. There are descriptions of the puking garter snakes of Hurricane Island, where the 17-year-old diarist is a reluctant participant in an Outward Bound retreat. There are idolatrous sessions with Herbert Huncke, the beatest of the Beats. There are sweetly lame song lyrics ("dreams come fast in the summertime/but baby it's goin' on winter soon"), and preening rooster sketches from Normandy, where he finds love in the arms of the phlegmatic Jean-Pierre. But mostly we are on familiar turf, that of the aforementioned Knives: the "outdoor whorehouse" of the West Village and the rotting piers along the Hudson River, where trawling for sex is the name of the game.
The piers, their abandoned warehouses, and the "anonymous characters" within hold a tireless fascination for Wojnarowicz. He returns to them compulsively and writes of them convulsively in multiple-page paragraphs bursting with cinematic detail. As much attention is lavished on the geometric play of light through riverside windows, or the traces of "wind, rain, rust, decomposition of plaster... the evidence of sex acts and bodily functions such as human shit and tissues balled up with the same," as on the vision of a kid who emerges from the shadows clutching his neck, slashed by a demented homophobe, or descriptions of the author's own sexual dramas, in which the profane is casually transmuted into the sacred, as in a moment during heavy petting when he looks into a stranger's lapis eyes and sees, "something like the sky at dusk after a clear hot summer day," when "white jet streaks are etched against the oncoming darkness, connecting whole cities with a single line." Wojnarowicz's world is one in which grit is incidental, not thematic, and sensation is inextricable from heart and mind.
Despite the eternal return that exemplifies his writing, he never falls prey to the hustler clichés that lurk in warehouse corners, porno theaters, or truck stop men's rooms (two other favorite milieus). Journalist Carlo McCormick hit the nail on the head when he referred to Wojnarowicz as "the man who beat a dead horse back to life."
Three-fourths of the way through American Dream, an italicized editor's note informs us, "David made very few diary entries between 1980 and 1987. During that time, his career as an artist took off, and he had several solo exhibitions in New York and Europe." Unfortunately, the emotional/artistic relationship that is by all accounts Wojnarowicz's most significant--his long-term romance with Arbus-influenced photographer Peter Hujar--falls through this yawning gap. Likewise, the 11 months prior to Wojnarowicz's death (July 22, 1992), in which diary pages are given over to "phone logs and lists of things to do," go unrecorded. The feelings of frustration that these omissions generate point out the key difference between American Dream and the journals of a Cheever or a Plath. Since there aren't any skeletons in Mr. Wojnarowicz's closet, since sex and death are the overt subjects of his vast artistic record, what we crave turns out to be something much more homely--the assorted nuts and bolts of his biography. American Dream fails to deliver somewhat in this regard.
But if reading diaries is inherently perverse, criticizing them is even more so. In a late entry, Wojnarowicz writes, "A man on the balcony takes a Kodak picture of the sunset and uses a flash. What does he hope to illuminate?" Folly. If we read American Dream for what's on the page--haunting set pieces edited into a life-sized montage--and don't wish for a bulb-burst to light up what isn't, then it reads just fine.